Written by: Claudia Westwood
Edited by: Khushi Karnawat, Jesie Randhawa
Graphs by: Angelia Gan
Imposter syndrome as an issue is not gendered or racialised in itself, anyone can feel insecure in their position. However, it is shown to be more common and severe in women, and especially women of colour. Though the reasons for this are complex and context-specific, there are three key trends as to why this phenomenon is true:
Lack of representation, discriminatory practices in school or the workplace, and counter-narratives to inclusion initiatives.
First of all, imposter syndrome is shown more likely to be felt in spaces where your gender, race, or other identity factors are not well represented. Therefore, imposter syndrome is directly linked to lack of representation. This means it is often worse for women and BIPOCs in racially homogenous, male-dominated industries. A Gender Equality report by the British Chamber of Commerce found that over half of Singaporean companies reported only 20% of leadership roles were held by women. Of the top 100 listed companies, only 13% of board seats were held by women.
A study by Willis Towers Watson found that only a third of top 100 Singapore Exchange Limited (SGX)-listed companies have boards which could be considered to be ethnically diverse. The Singaporean Council For Board Diversity established in 2019 seeks to increase gender diversity, but does not address racial representation. This means that not only does entering the workplace as a minority remain difficult, but those who do find such employment continue to face barriers in the workplace that accompany underrepresentation.
Here, imposter syndrome is often seen as a lack of confidence in one’s own capabilities and an unwillingness to participate in meetings or discussions.
Such symptoms can inhibit performance in the workplace, and thus can lead to lack of promotion. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle: women and BIPOC’s are underrepresented at higher levels of management, and those who do progress continue to feel fraudulent.
Secondly, feelings of imposter syndrome are often reinforced for women and people of colour through common discriminatory workplace and education system occurrences. Women and people of colour are more likely to be ignored when they contribute, questioned on their knowledge, or overlooked for accolades or promotions, than their male colleagues and classmates.
Here, imposter syndrome does not necessarily inhibit the person’s performance directly, but rather feelings of inadequacy arise from their work being undervalued by colleagues and teachers.
On top of this, there are cases of overt racism and sexism which undermine a person’s confidence and prowess in education or the office. Racial-based bullying is an issue from school playgrounds up, and a recent children’s book which portrayed a ‘bully’ as darker skinned, and the victim as pale highlighted how racial discrimination can be reinforced by media and educational resources. These racist structures do not end after high school but are rather reinforced in the workplace.
A Statista survey from 2019 found that in Singapore, 35% of ethnic Malay respondents and 32% of ethnic Indian respondents reported they were ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ discriminated against in the workplace. All of these practices reinforce the narratives that the woman’s and BIPOC’s ideas and contributions are not of the same standard as their colleagues, furthering, and in some cases creating, narratives of self doubt. This is a different interplay between misogyny and racism and imposter syndrome as it is the overt biases of others which foster the imposter syndrome.
Thirdly, much needed gender and inclusion initiatives by employers are remedying some of the gross disparities that exist in many industries which are male dominated and lacking diversity, but they have led to harmful counter-narratives that women or people of colour ‘only get jobs’ because of their gender or race; narratives based on assumptions that quotas and other forms of positive discrimination policies are unfair. Critics use terminology such as “if it had been a fair contest” to claim that women and people of colour do not deserve the roles they are in.
This narrative is harmful in many ways, and rooted in a misunderstanding of the patriarchal and racist conditions in which recruitments and placements are and have historically been carried out, but it can also reinforce imposter syndrome. These critiques often lineup with pre-existing internal narratives of self doubt.
Therefore, addressing the misconceptions and microaggressions which can result from company’s gender and diversity initiatives will help to alleviate the imposter syndrome felt by women and BIPOCs in the workplace. Such narratives can be countered through both education and discipline. Workplaces should implement diversity and inclusion training, through which people can learn about microaggressions, systemic biases, and racialised and gendered workplace occurrences.
Secondly, workplaces have a duty to address such counter-narratives as workplace harassment, and convey the seriousness of the offence through disciplinary measures. Offhanded comments about diversity and inclusion hiring practices or biased beliefs about the validity of women and BIPOCs presence have no place in the modern work environment, and the furthering of imposter syndrome is just one of many negative consequences of such practices.
While imposter syndrome is in no way limited to a specific race or gender, its correlation with underrepresentation makes it an issue that disproportionately affects women and people of colour. Systemic issues arising from the misogyny and racism inherent in many patriarchal and racialised workplaces exacerbate these feelings and reinforce ideas of unworthiness and other characteristics of Imposter Syndrome. Finally, counter-narratives to inclusion initiatives create hostile work environments which can dissuade women and people of colour from remaining in the environment or from applying for promotion. While Imposter Syndrome is not inherently racialised or gendered, its interaction with the systemic issues already at play in the workplace make it another barrier to diversity and inclusion which must be addressed.
Having showcased some potential causes of correlation between Imposter Syndrome, systemic racism and misogyny, Part III will seek to offer solutions and ways to address these issues in a professional environment. Steps will be outlined for us, as individuals facing imposter syndrome, to take towards naming, addressing, and overcoming our inner monologues of self-doubt.