Is Impostor Syndrome, Or Feeling Like A Fraud, Gendered?

I first came across the term ‘impostor syndrome’ shortly after I joined law school. The term described exactly how I felt at the moment: a fraud, someone who had cheated her way into her current position.

Impostor syndrome defined as a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments, and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. This belief of being an impostor is independent of actual performance or ability, which the impostor tends to attribute to luck and chance.

Like many of my batchmates, I had coasted through school, where all you needed to do was memorize and repeat. I felt like I wasn’t as capable of being a lawyer as my smooth-talking batchmates, who quickly picked up the art of sounding lawyerly. I was especially in awe of the men in my batch, who I saw as effortlessly navigating the complexities that baffled me. They were certainly a lot more vocal than the women in our batch. They would raise hypothetical questions in class and socialise with professors as though they were old friends. I remember equating their vocalness and confidence with capability, and felt even more out of place and undeserving.

It did not help that there are few role models for me to look up to in the legal profession itself. The majority of judges and Senior Advocates are men, although some stunning women have done well. Within law school, my professors were overwhelmingly male. And the classroom discussion itself appeared dominated by men. By the end of my first year, unless I knew the subject extremely well, I no longer raised my hand in class. I began minimising every achievement I did have by putting it down to dumb luck. I wondered, like many women and men suffering from impostor syndrome, if I was here because of a mistake.

I remember equating the men’s vocalness and confidence with capability, and felt even more out of place and undeserving.

The Psychology of Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome was first discussed in a study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. In 1978, they published a review of their experiences in therapy with around 150 “high-achieving” women who were widely respected professionally. In spite of their clear competence, these women believed that they had fooled others into believing that they are intelligent. Clance and Imes attributed this lack of confidence to early family dynamics, and to the internalisation of general stereotypes about women’s incompetence.

The term has since become significant in pop psychology. The effects of impostor syndrome, particularly on high-achieving women, are fairly well known. A number of self-help books have been published on the subject. Many of these are aimed at women in particular.

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The gendered origins of impostor syndrome have since been questioned. Some studies continue to uphold that it disproportionately affects women. Others claim that there is no correlation between impostor syndrome and gender. Women are as likely to be confident as men, but may not express it because they are socially punished for it.

Are Men Affected Worse By Impostor Syndrome?

Merely because impostor syndrome affects both men and women equally does not mean that it does not have a gendered impact. A recent study attempted to find the relationship between impostor syndrome, gender and accountability. The researchers found that women in the control group reported feelings of being an impostor at a higher rate than men. But when women and men who were “impostors” were faced with feedback, they reacted very differently. While women welcomed accountability and used negative feedback as an opportunity to improve, men tended to perform worse after they were held accountable.

These results have been used to claim that impostor syndrome actually affects men worse than it affects women. The researchers linked the difference in performance to the difference in gendered expectations. Men are, by default, expected to be competent and knowledgeable. They thus perform poorly when subjected to additional pressure and accountability. Women, the researchers claim, are not subject to the same expectations. This appears to allow them to use negative feedback as an opportunity to improve on their work.

While women welcomed accountability and used negative feedback as an opportunity to improve, men tended to perform worse after they were held accountable.

The explanation offered is interesting when considered in the context of research on stereotypes and confirmation bias.  Most studies that deal with stereotypes affirm that when someone is exposed to a positive or a negative stereotype, they perform better or worse in accordance with that stereotype. It is counter-intuitive that these subconscious pressures would then make men perform in a way that is contrary to the stereotype instead.

Countering Impostor Syndrome

Regardless of the literature on impostor syndrome, it is undeniable that working in a heavily male-dominated profession is challenging for women and minorities. While we fight for structural changes in our workplaces, we may often be made to feel like we do not fully belong. We need to continually remind ourselves that we do indeed have a right to exist in these spaces. Having a strong network of like-minded friends both within and outside the profession goes a long way towards providing us the affirmation that we need.

Also Read: The Gender Pay Gap: Unequal Pay for Equal Work

It took me a while to decouple my subconscious association of “men” with “competence in the law”. I realised that this perception of competence was strongly linked to the fact that men are more likely to externally demonstrate confidence than women. I worked on building my own confidence and skills, and while I have a long way to go, I am happy to say that I feel more secure than before.

At the root of what I called impostor syndrome was an inability to believe that everyone else had the same flaws as me. I overcame the feeling that I was a fraud after (gradually) realising that everyone experiences the same feeling to a degree. Whether or not impostor syndrome correlates to gender in its effect, this realisation is essential to overcoming it.

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