How is the experience of Imposter Syndrome among minority groups different?
When it comes to Imposter Syndrome, there are added layers of complexity for minority groups that we can all benefit from being aware of.
The feeling of belonging
Imposter Syndrome (more accurately known as ‘imposter phenomenon’) at work describes the experience of feeling like a fraud and not good enough to be in your role. You may secretly believe your abilities have been overestimated and although you perform well, it feels like a lucky streak or a mistake, and you fully expect to be found out as being an imposter at any moment.
Put another way, you feel like you do not belong where you are.
It is this overarching feeling of not belonging that is key to understanding how minority groups experience imposter feelings differently or more intensely than others.
If you feel like you do not belong somewhere, you are more likely to think you should not be there, than think that you should. You are more likely to think there has been a mistake, than think you deserve to be there. You are more likely to feel like an imposter.
None of this is simple
This is a big topic, and not one that a short article like this can fully detail, but it is worth at least making a start.
The first thing to clarify is that there really is no such thing as the ‘minority group experience’ of anything. Every minority group has its own unique challenges, and the same applies to different sub-groups within them.
Further, there is no single ‘cause’ that explains why some people experience imposter feelings and others do not. There can be a variety of different factors at play for each individual. Also, Imposter Syndrome is an internal experience and so no two individuals have the exact same experience.
However, when looking at Imposter Syndrome among underrepresented groups, there are relevant themes that emerge that simply do not exist as acutely for the rest of the population. Also, studies have shown that race is often a contributing factor to feelings of being an imposter, and that is interesting.
It is worth everyone being aware of these themes. Not only can this awareness spark some understanding of a similar or related factor that may be relevant to you, but it can also potentially help you understand your colleagues better and how your workplace can take positive steps to help that will ultimately benefit everyone.
Is this about race?
This can be an important factor in making the imposter experience for some more intense.
Many minority groups have experienced microaggressions throughout their lives. They have, in one way or another, received a message from society that they do not belong in certain spheres or are not as capable.
This narrative is often unconsciously internalised by individuals and so when they do succeed, they can feel like imposters. When you are achieving beyond expectations and going against an established societal narrative, you assume something has gone amiss, rather than believe it is due to your skills and talents (‘maybe the interview panel got it wrong’ or ‘it was just luck’).
Ironically, many who experience Imposter Syndrome have in reality had to prove their capabilities far more than others because they have often achieved despite playing on an uneven playing field.
It can be visual
The sense of not belonging and being an imposter can feel starker when it is visual. When you look around the room and see how uncommon it is for someone who looks like you to succeed and be where you are, you may be more likely to question whether a mistake has been made about your abilities and whether you should really be there.
“When you see white men all around you, it is a given (conscious or unconscious) that you are the deviation” says Zara, a media professional of Pakistani heritage. She describes Imposter Syndrome as “feeling like you are blagging your job and worried you will be rumbled at any moment (and if you are eventually busted, you would think ‘fair enough'…)".
Pressure of representation
Zara talks about the pressure of feeling like a token representative when working for one of the country’s largest broadcasters.
In this unforgiving media environment, any mistakes were routinely and cruelly called out and criticized in front of colleagues. This public ridicule for making mistakes put a lot of pressure on everyone. However, on top of this, Zara felt any errors she personally made would not only affect her own career, but would also have a negative impact on everyone’s perception of – and openness to – all minority groups.
That is a lot of extra pressure not to make mistakes in an already gruelling work environment. Given that a fear of failure and making mistakes often contributes to the intensity of imposter feelings, it is unsurprising that Imposter Syndrome emerges so frequently in these situations.
Also, some people from underrepresented groups feel that any mistakes they make at work would not be treated in the same way as those of their colleagues and that the consequences would be worse (because workplace equality does not exist yet). They therefore fear making mistakes even more.
If this resonates with you, start to gently break this cycle by focussing instead on growth and what you have learned, rather than exclusively looking at the end result in terms of failure or success. For workplaces and managers, encouraging and adopting a similar approach more widely among teams can help to nurture a more open and supportive environment, which will ultimately benefit everyone.
There is also something important about authenticity here. To feel less like an imposter and feel more like you belong, you have to feel safe enough to be your authentic self at work. And yet it is difficult to feel safe when the message you are receiving consciously or unconsciously is that you should not be there and that you are a rare exception.
In addition to this, many people from minority groups have had to make an asserted effort to try to fit in at work and this sometimes involves hiding parts of themselves and their backgrounds – everything from tweaking the way they speak, dress, or socialise, to deliberately not mentioning things that really matter to them or feigning interest in things that do not.
Cumulatively, this can make you feel less authentic and even more like an imposter – if you were to show your true self, would it be clearer to everyone that you really do not belong there?
For employers, adopting a more inclusive and thoughtful approach to workplace culture can very much help with this – and again, such practices are beneficial to all.
Does having role models help?
Absolutely, but they have to be relatable.
When you can see others from minority groups in senior positions, it has the potential to send an important communication about belonging. This is something that many people in well-represented groups can take for granted.
For example, if you feel out of place and are from an underrepresented group, the leap to assuming you are just filling a diversity quota is a fairly easy one to make (and this is a common feature for many in their imposter experience). However, seeing others ‘like you’ thriving in senior positions can help to affirm a sense of being welcome and openly valued in your workplace, which can help to ease imposter feelings.
However, these role models and mentors need to be relatable and have stayed authentic. If they all appear to have succeeded by somehow concealing or downplaying their minority identities and differences, the underlying message remains intact: you do not belong as you are and you need to hide your true self to fit in. If you were already feeling like an imposter, this will reinforce it.
For organisations, it is therefore important to get this right. Token representation and visibility is not the way. Employees’ differences need to be embraced, respected and valued for this to be effective in helping to ease imposter feelings.
For individuals in this situation, becoming really clear on what you bring to the table can help ease those internal imposter feelings. Take some time to remind yourself of your objective qualifications and/or experience and consciously listen to positive feedback that you might usually ignore.
Or is this really about class?
Many people feel like they do not belong in work environments because they come from a different socio-economic background to those around them, and this can contribute to their imposter feelings.
This is particularly relevant when looking at Imposter Syndrome experienced by minority groups because demographic realities mean many are also likely to come from less advantaged backgrounds.
Nihal became more conscious of his working class background as he climbed the career ladder and was increasingly surrounded by colleagues who were privately educated and from wealthier backgrounds. As a British Asian male and the Development Lead at a large tech company, he sometimes feels like an imposter and like he does not belong there, “I think it’s to do with language. I don’t think I speak properly, it’s not the Queen’s English”.
Are his imposter feelings more about class than race then? For Nihal, the two are intrinsically linked. At school and university, all of his teachers and professors were white and wealthier, and the same applies to his present manager at work. There may be an assumption that successful people do not look like him and are not like him: “I get phenomenal feedback” says Nihal “but I think I am just lucky”.
Again, it is about having relatable role models of people from working class backgrounds. When push comes to shove, does Nihal think certain senior public figures from minority backgrounds would have reached those spheres if they were not privately educated and well connected? ‘Probably not’, he thinks. For him, the class advantage cancels out and the race disadvantage.
Is it worse for women?
Studies show that men and women tend to experience Imposter Syndrome fairly equally. However, intersectionality is relevant here.
For Zara, her imposter feelings related to being a female in the male dominated media organisation she worked in were just as strong as the imposter feelings related to her ethnicity.
The broadcaster she worked for had an entrenched culture of ignoring (ie, permitting) sexual harassment perpetrated by men. It also had few females in senior positions, despite females making up the majority in junior roles. Zara acknowledges that it would be very difficult for any aspiring female working in such an organisation to feel it valued females, wanted them there, and that they belonged.
For her, any imposter feelings were as much bound to her female status as they were to her ethnic minority status.
Does levelling the playing field help?
So what happens when you take race out of the equation, are imposter feelings less intense? It would seem so.
Ayo, a mixed race male of Nigerian and English heritage is an investment banker. Interestingly, Ayo did not experience imposter feelings until he moved to the UK. He likens Imposter Syndrome to “sitting in first class, secretly knowing you should really be in economy”.
Ayo grew up in Nigeria with confidence, privilege, and a sense of belonging. When he came to England, he was struck by how black men of his age, who had grown up in England or America, had very different outlooks to him.
Ayo thinks it is about societal expectations and messaging. If you perceive that others have low expectations of you, imposter feelings can creep in when you outperform those expectations: “the messages I received growing up and that my black peers in England received growing up were very different. I was expected to succeed professionally, it was a given”.
Zara also knows what it is like to have race removed from the equation. In recent years she has moved to South Asia and worked in the media there. She has noticed that her imposter feelings have nearly disappeared now that she is “on the same colour page” as everyone else. Her underlying fears around race ambassadorship and diversity representation have gone and she no longer feels like she is a rare exception to any rule.
For Nihal, working in a truly diverse workplace has very much helped to ease his imposter feelings too. Surrounded by colleagues from lots of different backgrounds has blurred the existence of any particular norm and has meant the intensity around him being the only one who is ‘different’ or might not belong has reduced.
What else can help
With factors such as race, gender, socio-economics, intersectionality, authenticity, representation, and belonging all in the mix, clearly what is needed are larger shifts at a societal level. However, there are lots of things organisations and individuals can start to do now to help ease the intensity of imposter feelings and improve things for everyone. Here are a few:
1. Build supportive workplaces
It is clear that hostile work environments have a huge impact on employees’ imposter feelings. Reduce pressure wherever you can, for example, by reframing mistakes as learning opportunities. Encourage and facilitate conversations about imposter feelings and set up mentoring programmes or spaces for safe conversations where possible.
2. Cultivate an atmosphere of belonging
This could include everything from calling out harassment and un-inclusive behaviours to welcoming different modes of dress and socialising. Working in a diverse workplace also helps to reduce imposter feelings, as does ensuring your senior role models and mentors are representative, relatable and authentic.
3. Objective and open processes
Be objective and open in HR decision-making to ensure employees trust and understand that the processes and structures relating to their careers are fair. For example, stick to objective and formal recruitment, promotion, pay and performance processes.
For individuals experiencing imposter feelings
If you feel like an imposter there is nothing ‘wrong’ with you. It is an internal experience that, with attention and support, can improve significantly with time.
1. Talk about it
Where you feel comfortable, talk to others about your imposter feelings. It helps to share and connect and you can feel less alone and less like an imposter. It can also be a bonus should you realise in your conversations that others feel similarly, or are in any case struggling with something of their own which makes them feel insecure about where they are at.
2. Keep perspective
Most people with imposter feelings overestimate the abilities of others, whilst simultaneously underestimating their own, so be conscious that you may be doing this. Get clear and honest on what the general level of performance required in your case is and note objectively whether you meet the standard. Chances are that you do.
3. Change your imposter related narrative
It is important to unpick your internalised narrative about why you believe you are an imposter, whatever that is, and replace it with a more empowering story. This is not easy, but make a start by thinking about the messages you may have internalised and taken to be true, and then carefully re-assess their ‘truth’.
Note: If you are suffering from acute levels of anxiety, stress and/or depression, you should also seek specialist therapeutic support such as counselling or psychotherapy.
Note: Any names in this article have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Nazish Bhaiwala, Founder and Career coach at Red Arbre, speaks and writes on overcoming Imposter Syndrome.
In 2018 Nazish carried out a series of interviews of female international human rights lawyers from all over the world about their experiences of Imposter Syndrome. Combining this global scale learning with her own coaching experience means she has an in-depth and unique understanding of Imposter Syndrome and the coaching tools and strategies that can help to overcome it.