• Michelle M. Morkert

The Problem with "Imposter syndrome"

I know many womxn who felt liberated when they first learned about the concept of Imposter Syndrome. It offered them an explanation about why they felt insecure in the workplace despite their accomplishments and expertise. Realizing that they were not alone, the concept of Imposter Syndrome validated the experiences of these high achievers who not only felt like imposters, but also felt ashamed of those feelings. After all, like the U.S. Enjoli perfume commercial of 1979 fame announced, these womxn lived in a climate of sexism cloaked in feminist rhetoric convincing them that they could be (and should be) Wonder Women.


Imposter syndrome, 2021. Image by Almira Tanner



Imposter Phenomenon. Imposterism. Fraud Syndrome. Imposter Experience. Imposter Syndrome has undergone many rhetorical shifts since it first emerged in U.S. academic writing during the 1980s. Clinical psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the concept and defined it in the late 1970s as an individualized experience of intellectual and professional fraudulence (1978). They discovered that high achieving women experienced a common set of limiting beliefs about themselves. Their subjects worried that with each new achievement, the chances of someone finding out that they were frauds increased. Therefore, these high achieving women felt fear instead of pride about their accomplishments. This also meant that they did not mark their milestones to give their brains evidence that they could count on their skills and expertise in the future.


Clance and Imes discovered that women in their study felt like they were not "enough" even as they earned promotions. This feeling of lack fostered perfectionism and the drive to earn value and worth through flawless productivity. As a consequence, women worked longer hours with little support in their quest for the elusive perfectionism while still shouldering the majority of domestic labor in the home.



Take a look at some of the most widely read texts on Imposter Syndrome and you will see the clear throughline. Individual women need to fix themselves so that they can achieve happiness and success while avoiding burnout.


The Imposter Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear that Haunts Your Success - Dr. Pauline Rose Clance (1986)


The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are - Dr. Brene Brown (2010)


The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It - Valerie Young (2011)


The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace - Dr. Ruchika Tulshyan (2016).


Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges - Dr. Amy Cuddy (2018)


Unlocking your Authentic Self: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, Enhancing Self-confidence, and banishing Self-doubt - Jennifer Hunt (2020)


Ditching Imposter Syndrome: How to Finally Feel Good Enough and Become the Leader You Were Born to Be - Clare Josa (2020)


Unlocking your Authentic Self: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, Enhancing Self-confidence, and banishing Self-doubt - Jennifer Hunt (2020)


Ditching Imposter Syndrome: How to Finally Feel Good Enough and Become the Leader You Were Born to Be - Clare Josa (2020)


Imposter Syndrome research in the United States emerged after the first and second wave of the women’s rights movements and within a cultural era that fought women with their own words. The Enjoli commercial was just one example of the feminist backlash, but that jingle played in homes and looped in mind across the United States.


I can put the wash on the line, feed the kids, get dressed, pass out the kisses and get to work by 5 to 9.

'Cause I'm a Woman, Enjoli!

(Announcer): Charles of The Ritz Creates Enjoli. The New 8 Hour Perfume for The 24 Hour Woman.

I can bring home the Bacon!

Enjoli.

Fry it up in a Pan!

Enjoli.

And Never, Never, Never let you forget You're a Man!

'Cause I'm a Woman!

Enjoli!


The commercial excerpted lyrics from the quasi "feminist" anthem, "I’m a Woman," written by Peggy Lee in 1963.


I can wash out 44 pairs of socks and have 'em hangin' out on the line.

I can starch and iron 2 dozens shirts before you can count from 1 to 9.

I can scoop up a great big dipper, full of lard from the drippins can;

Throw it in the skillet, go out and do my shopping, be back before it melts in the pan.

'Cause I'm a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I'll say it again!

I can rub and scrub this old house 'til it's shinin' like a dime,

Feed the baby, grease the car, and powder my face at the same time;

Get all dressed up, go out and swing 'til 4 am,

And then lay down at 5, jump up at 6, and start all over again!

'Cause I'm a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I'll say it again!

If you come to me sickly, you know I'm gonna make you well.

If you come to me all hexed up, you know I'm gonna break the spell.

If you come to me hungry, you know I'm gonna fill you full of grits.

If it's lovin' you're likin', I'll kiss you and give you the shiverin' fits.

'Cause I'm a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I'll say it again!

I can stretch a greenback dollar bill from here to kingdom come.

I can play the numbers, pay the bills and still end up with some.

I got a twenty dollar gold piece says there ain't nothing I can't do.

I can make a dress out of a feed bag and I can make a man out of you!

'Cause I'm a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I'll say it again!

'Cause I'm a woman! W-O-M-A-N . . . and that's all.


It may be tempting to write off these examples as outdated, but these types of media are not as antiquated as they may seem to today’s global readership. The language may be different, but the underpinning lessons are the same. Family, community, media, and education condition womxn for "appropriate femininities." And, we know all too well from the work of intersectional feminists that the messages shift depending on the womxn’s race, ethnicity, age, ability, sexuality, gender identity and more. Yet, the message is clear. "Work. Work harder. Know that there’s more to do to be perfect. Achieve perfection and then you can rest."


U.S.-based research about Imposter Syndrome emerged from the culture clashes of the1960s and 1970s into the full blown backlash against feminism in the 1980s. Predominately white, middle aged, shoulder pad, power suit wearing womxn broke glass ceilings in government and business while attempting to do and have "it all" which was code for prove that you can do it all for less pay and more scrutiny without complaint. Oh, and then police other womxn to do it this way too. The research on Imposter Syndrome connected the dots across industries where womxn were slowly becoming the new demographic and identified its impact including burnout, catastrophizing, insecurity, overwhelm, perfectionism, and procrastination.


While the effects of Imposter Syndrome are deeply felt by individual womxn, BIPOC folks, LGBTQ+ individuals, first generation students, and other marginalized groups, pathologizing the individuals who feel like outsiders in systems that were not designed for their belonging and advancement is not the solution. The problem is systemic oppression and we must look at the toxicity that patriarchy and white supremacy culture create in our institutions and workplaces while also caring for individuals who experience the real impact of exclusion. When institutions add new demographics of employees without shifting the culture of leadership, the organizations never actually diversify. They simply expect the employees to conform to the traditional ways of knowing, to follow the (often) unwritten rules, and to show gratitude for having a space at the table.


We need an intersectional feminist approach that moves beyond "Imposter Syndrome" to investigate the power structures that perpetuate exclusion and to disrupt placing responsibility for patriarchal expectations on individuals who are the target of discrimination. It is time to examine at the root cause, the structural cause of Imposter Syndrome that hurts the individual, undercuts innovation by devaluing methods and knowledge outside white supremacy patriarchal culture, and negatively impacts the bottom line. The irony of structural inequity is that even those that think they win, don’t. It’s time to move beyond Imposter Syndrome.


Michelle M. Morkert, PhD, CPC is a global gender studies scholar and coach. For more information contact her through her website at michellemorkert.com or email her directly at michelle@michellemorkert.com.






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