Lurking behind the seemingly harmless psychological phenomenon of imposter syndrome is a pervasive weapon used to undermine and marginalize women. Imposter syndrome in its most innocent form is individuals doubting their accomplishments, fearing being exposed as fraud, and constantly questioning their worthiness of success regardless of their skill or talent. But in a toxic culture, imposter syndrome becomes much more than a personal struggle.
Most people associate imposter syndrome with high achievers. I found it to be very common in engineering across all genders and a study reported that 58% of tech employees experience it. So what’s the problem you might be asking?
The problem is that Imposter Syndrome can serve as a copout for real toxic culture problems at a company.
It puts the monkey on the individual’s back and makes it only their problem. Everyone else gets off scot-free.
In reality, many workplaces are using imposter syndrome as a tool against women. When the culture that you work in is plagued with problems like poor management, no trust or psychological safety, unrealistic job requirements, long hours, and a “work the job before you get the job” kind of mentality then it’s most likely NOT an issue with imposter syndrome.
In this article, we’ll explore the ways in which gender biases, unrealistic expectations, and systemic inequalities combine to exacerbate imposter syndrome’s impact. We’ll also shed some light on the detrimental consequences on women’s confidence, careers, and overall well-being.
The first step is recognizing whether the challenges you’re facing in your professional life stem from imposter syndrome or a toxic culture. I’m willing to go so far as to say that if you’re working in a toxic culture, it’s never imposter syndrome.
Individual vs. Systemic:
When we’re talking about how we show up in the workplace, we can’t avoid acknowledging the systems around us first. If you look around and the prevailing behavior is to not challenge those in leadership, no healthy conflict in meetings and diversity on the team doesn’t extend past the first-line managers, then the problem is systemic (toxic) and not an individual problem you can fix (imposter syndrome).
If your boss gives you feedback saying you need to address your imposter syndrome so you can speak up more in meetings and your culture matches the one described above, then s/he is just trying to make it your problem and not theirs. These toxic cultures perpetuate an environment where women consistently face biases, unequal opportunities, and discrimination. If you know that you’ve been putting in the work to grow and the results are always the same, then it’s another confirmation that the problem is systemic.
Patterns of Feedback:
Imposter syndrome often leads individuals to dismiss positive feedback or attribute it solely to external factors, reinforcing their self-doubt. In contrast, a toxic culture may exhibit patterns of biased or unfair feedback, microaggressions, or double standards specifically targeting women. If the feedback received consistently undermines women’s contributions or fails to recognize their achievements, it suggests a toxic culture at play.
Women are more likely to get feedback that is infrequent, vague, inconsistent, and about their communication style or personality. Out of an analysis of 200 reviews by Seattle University, the word “abrasive” was only used for women. One common word used to describe women in these reviews was “helpful” while the men were called “visionary.” Who is more likely to get promoted?
Isolation and Underrepresentation:
Imposter syndrome can cause individuals to feel isolated, believing they are the only ones struggling and that seeking support would reveal their perceived inadequacies. In a toxic culture, women may face isolation due to being outnumbered or excluded from critical decision-making processes, social networks (golf anyone?), or advancement opportunities. If women consistently feel marginalized or underrepresented, it indicates a toxic culture’s impact.
Unfortunately, in 2023, we still haven’t witnessed equal representation for talented women across industries. A 2020 analysis by Mercer of over 1,100 organizations across the world found a leaky pipeline for women in leadership: Executives: 23%, Senior managers: 29%, Managers: 37%, Professionals: 42%, Support staff: 47%. Although these numbers show a slight improvement, we know that Covid had a disproportionate impact on women in the workplace seeing women with children under 12 losing 2.2 million jobs compared to 870k jobs for fathers.
Mental and Emotional Well-being:
Imposter syndrome often takes a toll on individuals’ mental and emotional well-being, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and a fear of failure. However, when a toxic culture is at play, women may experience more severe consequences, such as chronic stress, burnout, feelings of worthlessness, or even depression. Monitoring one’s mental and emotional state can provide insights into the broader context in which imposter syndrome operates.
Toxic cultures often exploit imposter syndrome as a means of maintaining the status quo. Women’s self-doubt is weaponized to justify their exclusion from leadership roles or important projects, creating a cycle where their opportunities for growth and advancement are limited. The toxic culture thrives by reinforcing the narrative that women are not fit for leadership, further fueling imposter syndrome and perpetuating the cycle of bias and inequality.
There are some seasons in life when we have the capacity to tackle something as daunting as a toxic culture at work.
Change can indeed be made but it takes intention, energy, and a team of people willing to do the hard work day in and day out. There are seasons where the toxicity at work is enough to drown us.
When I began my tech career, the culture was beyond toxic, it was asinine. I was young and naïve and saw no reason for me to stick my neck out and change anything. My job was to bring home a paycheck and care for my family. By the time I was painfully aware of the limitations the culture would put on my career trajectory, I was buried in stress at home and at work. I didn’t have the luxury of changing jobs because there was nothing around that paid like tech and my benefits were unmatched. In that season, it was just about survival.
Once you recognize the systems at play around you and the level of toxicity in the workplace, you need to also evaluate what season of life you’re in. What can you afford to do and what can you not afford to do? Remember, however, that it is never worth the cost of ongoing mental health impacts. Whether we realize it or not, stress takes a physical toll as well because your body strives to maintain some kind of equilibrium. Stealing from Peter to pay Paul, essentially.
Recognizing how imposter syndrome is weaponized against women is crucial for dismantling toxic cultures.
Here are some strategies to empower women in the face of these challenges:
Women must recognize that imposter syndrome is not a personal failing but a consequence of systemic biases and toxic work cultures. Understanding this larger context helps shift the blame from within and encourages collective action.
Awareness empowers women to challenge the internalized beliefs of imposter syndrome. By acknowledging that their experiences are not isolated incidents but part of a broader pattern, women can gain clarity and realize that their feelings of inadequacy are rooted in systemic issues rather than their own shortcomings. I found that I needed the help of a professional to make this shift but others can more easily make that pivot.
Seeking support and solidarity:
Building support networks and seeking mentors who understand the challenges women face can provide a crucial lifeline. By sharing experiences and supporting one another, women can gain validation, guidance, and strength to navigate toxic cultures.
Connecting with like-minded individuals who have experienced similar challenges helps women realize that they are not alone in their struggles. Mentors and allies can provide guidance, perspective, and encouragement, offering valuable insights to overcome imposter syndrome and thrive despite the toxic environment. Having allies that are part of your daily work and meetings becomes critical. When you say “Bob, you’ve interrupted me 3 times,” Bob might roll his eyes. But when John says “Bob, you’ve interrupted her 3 times,” Bob might actually listen, unfortunately. It’s powerful when we have a diverse team of allies with us to consistently point out behaviors that undermine others.
Challenging Biases and Stereotypes:
Women, alongside supportive colleagues and allies, can actively challenge biased feedback, double standards, and gendered expectations within the workplace. By calling out and questioning these biases, they can contribute to a culture of inclusivity and fairness.
Women can use their voices to challenge biased feedback and stereotypes by highlighting their accomplishments, showcasing their skills, and providing evidence of their competence. By advocating for fair treatment and equal opportunities, women can create ripples of change within their organizations, encouraging others to reevaluate their biases and perceptions. The most powerful element here is in building a critical mass of those willing to call out these behaviors. If an ally is given the opportunity to lead a project and they know that you have more skills, they can directly challenge the reason they would be getting this project instead of you.
Cultivating Self-Compassion and Resilience:
Developing self-compassion is essential in overcoming imposter syndrome in toxic cultures. Women must learn to acknowledge their accomplishments, embrace their strengths, and show kindness to themselves in the face of adversity.
Cultivating resilience helps women bounce back from setbacks and persevere in the face of challenges. Think of it like building the skill to wobble (like those wobble clowns of long ago). Someone or something may try to knock you down but you’re able to stand right back up. Or in the words of Ted Lasso “Be a goldfish.” By reframing failures as learning opportunities and celebrating their achievements, women can build a foundation of self-belief and inner strength, countering the negative impact of toxic cultures.
Promoting Cultural Change:
Driving systemic change is crucial for combating imposter syndrome in toxic cultures. Women can actively participate in initiatives that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organizations.
Employee resource groups are excellent for driving change in your organization. They can also provide a strong network of support and allies. These groups go a long way to advocate for policies that address biases, encourage transparency, and foster a culture of belonging and respect.
Remember, addressing imposter syndrome and combating toxic cultures is an ongoing journey. By recognizing the nuanced differences between these phenomena and taking appropriate action, we pave the way for a more equitable and supportive professional landscape—one where women can truly thrive and unleash their full potential.
It is essential for organizations to foster a culture of psychological safety, where women are empowered to speak up about their experiences, challenge biases, and actively participate in decision-making processes.
Implementing unbiased performance evaluations, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and mentorship programs can help dismantle systemic barriers and promote equity.
Together, let us embrace authenticity, amplify diverse voices, and foster workplaces where every individual, regardless of gender, can flourish and make a lasting impact. If you need help with this hard work then check out the coaching groups that restart in January 2024. https://kdpenn.com/group-coaching-package/