Here’s Why Systemic Bias Is the Cause of Imposter Syndrome

I had recurring dreams after I finished graduate school and after I served as an interim executive director of an orchestra for 15 months.

The dream post-grad school was that I hadn’t actually completed all the coursework and I still had papers to submit. The dream lasted for months. I waited for a call from the registrar’s office. I didn’t really have a master’s degree, did I?

The dream following my time as executive director of an orchestra was more vivid. I was sitting in the string section, sometimes the concertmaster’s seat, and I couldn’t play the music. I did my best to fake the notes but everyone around me knew that I could not play the violin. I was a fraud, and they had figured it out. When would others find out?

I am a first-generation college graduate and the first in my family to earn a master’s degree. I do not play music, but my master’s degree is in arts administration and my early career was in the arts and culture sector. I was a good student and excelled professionally. I knew my work, was confident in my abilities, and my early career progressed quickly with promotion after promotion.

Yet, the dreams came. I always thought it was “imposter syndrome”— the self-doubt that rears its ugly head when we achieve and succeed. But then a recent article in Harvard Business Review titled “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” got my attention.

The authors Ruchika Rulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey reframe the issue:

“Although feelings of uncertainty are an expected and normal part of professional life, women who experience them are deemed to suffer from imposter syndrome. Even if women demonstrate strength, ambition, and resilience, our daily battles with microaggressions, especially expectations and assumptions formed by stereotypes and racism, often push us down. Imposter syndrome as a concept fails to capture this dynamic and puts the onus on women to deal with the effects.”

Up until now, the conversation has been about how to help women overcome imposter syndrome. Instead, we should be challenging the biases inherent in our culture, institutions, and workplaces.

Rulshyan and Burey explain further:

“The same systems that reward confidence in male leaders, even if they’re incompetent, punish white women for lacking confidence, women of color for showing too much of it, and all women for demonstrating it in a way that’s deemed unacceptable.”

Feeling overwhelmed and unsure of ourselves at times doesn’t make us imposters. It’s less about our potential “failings” and more about accepting the normalcy of uncertainty. It’s about realizing that the system is broken, not women.

We earned our degrees and promotions, our successes and accolades.

In order to truly overcome imposter syndrome, we must focus our efforts on fixing the systemic bias that created feelings of self-doubt in the first place. Let’s keep this insightful article front-and-center and talk openly about the real issue. Only then will we change the conversations and change the dreams.

Article by: Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder & CEO

2021-04-15T16:25:44+00:00April 15th, 2021|