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Women, Careers, Academia, and the Imposter Syndrome

As humans, we constantly seek validation. But it should not be the sole reason for ambition


By: Saskia Wodarczak


A woman searching for a book on a library shelf
Image by free stocks-photos from Pixabay

Those who know me in real life are fully aware that I have always been very late to jump on the bandwagon – and I’m more than happy to admit it. Hey, at least I’m self-aware. That aside, I recently discovered podcasts. It took me a bit, but it’s safe to say I am fully on board the podcast train now – and I was listening to this one that was talking about women and imposter syndrome. I found it intriguing because I myself have experienced imposter syndrome multiple times in my nineteen years of living. If anything, it’s a constant. So, I did some of my own research. In short, imposter syndrome is not being able to believe that you have certain, unique capabilities and that your successes, in no matter what medium, are a result of your own hard work.


Forbes did a really interesting story regarding the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit. They interviewed 750 executive women from top companies about their personal experiences in the workplace and possible imposter syndrome. The study found that “75 per cent of executive women identified having experienced imposter syndrome at various points during their careers – and 85 per cent believe it is commonly experienced by women across corporate America.” The feeling of imposter syndrome continuously appeared with promotions or new roles, and any other big, proud, transitional moments in their careers. It's not surprising that imposter syndrome is prevalent among women in the corporate world, but the numbers and stats in the article are really eye-opening.


On a personal level, I’m just starting out in the world of careers and professions in this first semester of Co-op, so I don’t know a whole lot in regards to the corporate world, but I do know a lot about imposter syndrome in regards to academia. I thrive on academic validation. Yes, I usually take a full load of courses and overwork myself… I am an enigma. If you once were the, pleasure-to-have-in-class student, you’ll get it – once you hear that, you want to constantly remain on that little pedestal.


That feeling followed me to university; that sense of unease and nonchalance about any accomplishments. If I get 80 per cent on an exam, I’ll think I could’ve done better. I have that personal standard to maintain. Even when I got accepted into all of the universities I’d applied to, I was indifferent about it… my parents were more excited about those acceptances than I was – I sort of just informed them, and moved on without a whole lot of excitement. I mean, I’d done what I’d needed to get to, and achieve, that point in my life, so what was worth celebrating? I did what I had to. End of story, time to move on.

When I got into Co-op, I wasn’t fazed. As self-centred as this might seem, I’ve gotten used to quickly achieving what I pursue on an academic standpoint, so I don’t celebrate those wins anymore, simply because they’re normal and I know I worked hard to get it. I knew--and still know--that I work hard to get to where I am and to where I want. I will do anything to achieve the standards and goals I’ve set for myself. I tell myself that my hard work pays off, and that my accomplishments are not just sheer dumb luck – hence, I don’t celebrate them because I already expect the achieving outcome so hey, it’s not a big surprise right?


Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes at Georgia State University, look at imposter syndrome in women very thoroughly in their paper. A lot of women graduate from postsecondary with incredible final examination scores but are certain that the scores are simply luck or misgrading on the part of the professor. Clance and Imes observed that a select group of women who struggle with imposter syndrome fall into one of two categories: those who have always been deemed as “sensitive,” compared to another designated, “intelligent,” person in their life, and the other group being those women that have always been praised and told that they are superior in every way, but as they grow up, realise that they cannot, in fact, do everything. Both of these groups seek validation but experience a lot of doubt. Hence, Clances and Imes saw that the imposter phenomenon can be rooted in early familial life and high expectations. They go on to discuss charm, perceptiveness, and the stereotype that that is for women in the workplace who win approval of a male superior. Women put their hearts and soul into their work, taking every opportunity to showcase their equality to convince others that they are worthy and not a “phoney,” in their workplace – that they work hard for what benefits they get.


It’s crazy how prevalent imposter syndrome is in our lives, especially as women (yes, I’m biased). From a young age, a lot is expected of us, and those expectations mould us. No matter what we’re told, some part of it will always stick with us. As humans, we constantly seek validation and when we don’t see it, we think that it’s on us. Validation should not be the sole reason for ambition, and one should not feel that achievements are rooted in sheer dumb luck. You worked hard to get to where you are, and you deserve to feel accomplished and validated through your achievements, and the work you put in to get there.


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