Featured Story

The Whole Self Issue October 2022

I'll go first: Prioritizing mental health at TestBox

I'll go first: Prioritizing mental health at TestBox

SnackTry this

It’s not imposter syndrome

The term is problematic, and ignores the systemic barriers that need breaking in workplaces and professional circles.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome has long been used (and overused and misused) to describe the feeling of doubt in your own abilities and qualifications at work. You may have called it “imposter syndrome” when you felt worried you didn’t deserve a promotion. Maybe you second guessed an accolade you earned or anxiously questioned whether you had the right professional skills to run the company you founded — and slapped an “imposter syndrome” label on that feeling. We’ve all been there.

Or have we?

It’s much more likely you’ve been there if you’re a woman, and especially a woman of color. Whereas white men are often able to find role models who look like them and are less likely to be questioned on things like competence, communication style, or leadership skills, women experience the opposite. They have fewer examples of women in leadership who came before them, and they are judged more harshly in positions of power.

As this Harvard Business Review article posits, there are quite a few problems with this term “imposter syndrome” that we’ve been throwing around since the ‘70s. For one thing, it completely ignores the impact of systemic racism, classism, and misogyny that still runs rampant in even the most progressive of workplaces and professional circles. Also, the diagnosis often indicates that something about individuals (most often women) at work — their attitude, perspective, confidence, etc. — must be fixed, rather than fixing the places we work.

As a founder, it’s essential to build a company culture that fosters a variety of leadership styles and steers clear of only deeming certain identities “professional.” But don’t forget to recognize the systemic barriers you’re facing as a founder, too — and know that the self-doubt you’ve identified as “imposter syndrome” could be a result of the very real bias you’re up against in both day-to-day and big picture environments.


If you’re thinking: Does my professional experience make me qualified enough to keep running this company as it grows?

It’s not imposter syndrome if you’re the first woman-owned brand in your vertical to ever surpass more than $2M in funding. There’s added pressure of being the “first” due to a lack of representation across your industry.


If you’re thinking: I haven’t secured my next round of investment because I’ve been lacking confidence in pitch meetings lately.

It’s not imposter syndrome if none of the venture capitalists you’ve pitched to thus far share your racial or cultural identity. There could be underlying biases at play in the decision-making process, and microaggressions you’re likely to experience during pitches can be exhausting and a blow to your confidence.


If you’re thinking: My co-founder should probably assume the CEO role instead of me — his confidence makes him a better leader.

It’s not imposter syndrome if your co-founder is male and you are not. We have the tendency to falsely assume that confidence — most often the type demonstrated by white, male leaders — is the same thing as competence and strength.

More to snack on

Five bookstores breaking barriers
Snack  Top 5

Five bookstores breaking barriers

Written, recorded, and designed by doers & makers © 2022 In the Works