Impostor Syndrome: How Does It Affect Businesswomen?

Stressed worker huddled over desk.

It’s an all-too-familiar struggle for women in business—despite overwhelming evidence of your skills, talents, and achievements, you still feel like you don’t deserve any recognition. Feelings of insecurity constantly take over, making it seem like you’ve been a complete fraud your entire professional life.

Well, it turns out that there’s an actual name for this common phenomenon, which was first coined by psychologists in the 1970s: Impostor Syndrome. If you suffer from impostor syndrome, you probably feel like it’ll never go away. But don’t worry! We’ll explain more about what imposter syndrome is, how it affects women in business, and essential steps you can take to overcome it.

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes first theorized about impostor syndrome in 1978. In their journal article, the psychologists state that women who experience it “maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Imposter syndrome can stem from many different aspects such as:

  • Family dynamics
  • Low self-esteem
  • Fear of failure
  • Societal expectations
  • Racial and/or gender discrimination

Although impostor syndrome is not considered an actual disorder, it’s still real; those who have it can encounter symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety.

Who Suffers from Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor syndrome doesn’t discriminate; people of all backgrounds and experiences can have these feelings. Impostor syndrome most commonly arises in:

  • Women
  • Minorities
  • Ambitious people
  • Perfectionists

Where Does Impostor Syndrome Occur?

Impostor syndrome can happen anywhere, but it’s most commonly found in places such as:

  • School
  • Work
  • Unfamiliar settings

Thoughts associated with Impostor Syndrome

  • “I don’t deserve this.”
  • “I can’t live up to these expectations.”
  • “I’m not smart enough.”
  • “I make too many mistakes.”
  • “I’m going to fail.”
  • “Anyone can do my job.”
  • “I just got lucky.”

Impostor Syndrome and Women in Business

In their 1973 journal article, Clance and Imes found that through their clinical experience, it’s often high-achieving women who experience impostor syndrome at a higher intensity and frequency than men. However, Clance then stated in 1993 that her original theory was inaccurate and that men are just as likely to experience impostor syndrome.

Several reasons why many women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in general never achieve their end goal is due to overwhelming self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and unrealistic expectations.

Both women and men can experience impostor syndrome at similar levels; however, experiences with impostor syndrome differ between genders in the sense that women are sometimes more susceptible to specific external pressures. Throughout the years, society has ingrained in many women that they are less competent; as a result, they develop a stronger need to somehow “prove themselves” or “look smart.”

Common Scenarios

  • You’ve received a raise and a promotion, but feel as if you didn’t earn it. You then feel an overwhelming pressure to work much longer and harder than usual.
  • Your business is thriving, but you often compare yourself to more successful businesses.
  • You feel like you can’t keep up with constantly-changing business trends.
  • You need your work to be 100% perfect and any mistakes made are extremely discouraging.

Successful Women and Impostor Syndrome

If you’re a woman entrepreneur or woman in business suffering from impostor syndrome, just know that you’re not alone. Even some of the most successful women have shared similar feelings of doubt and incompetence. Here are a few quotes from those who have experienced impostor syndrome:

“Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up … This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name — the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.”

—Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO

“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’"

—Maya Angelou, Author


“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re onto me! I’m a fraud!’ So, you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”

—Tina Fey, Actress

How Women in Business Can Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Recognize the Signs

One of the first steps in dealing with impostor syndrome is recognizing the common signs, such as constantly doubting yourself, setting incredibly high expectations, and feeling like a fraud in your professional life. The quicker you recognize you have a problem, the quicker you can work to fix it.

Seek Help

Impostor syndrome is very common, and you don’t have to face it by yourself. There are resources out there like family, friends, support groups, and mental health professionals. Don’t be afraid to talk about it and find ways to manage all the negative feelings.

Set Realistic Goals

It’s normal to get ahead of yourself when you’re excited about your business or a specific project; however, unrealistic goals--ones that require more energy, skills, and time than you actually have--can automatically set you up for failure. Goals need to be actionable with a strong sense of direction. Try following the S.M.A.R.T. method: Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.

Accept Failure

Remember that quote by writer Samuel Beckett? “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s impossible to be perfect; the sooner you make peace with that fact, the sooner you’ll be able to pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes, and continue on even stronger.

Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

Life paths--personal and professional--are unique. When you compare yourself to others, you may be seeing someone else at their best. Remember that everyone faces their own struggles. It may be difficult, but instead of letting others’ achievements bring you down, use it as motivation for your own journey.

Celebrate Small Victories

If you suffer from impostor syndrome, you probably have trouble acknowledging your accomplishments. Instead of feeling like a fraud, embrace your strengths and know that you deserve the recognition you receive. Celebrating small wins allows you to better track your progress, form healthy habits, and as a result, boost your confidence.

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