Women and the Imposter Syndrome

The Atlantic Magazine has another blockbuster cover story in their May edition investigating the confidence gap between men and women.

Following on the heels of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller “Lean In”, the article examines the internal belief (held more frequently by women than men) that someday, someone will discover that despite being a senior law firm partner, they have been fooling everyone and are not competent to do the job. It is remarkable how frequently the aptly named “imposter syndrome” not only holds women back from taking on more senior roles but continues to haunt them once they attain senior status.

Everyone, both men and women experience self-doubt at different points in their lives. The difference is the degree of self-doubt plus the different ways the sexes have in responding to it.

Gender differences are rooted in both biology (testosterone versus estrogen and its impact on risk-taking plus different ways of processing emotion in the male versus the female brain) and in the way that boys and girls are raised. Little boys wrestle, trade insults to establish hierarchies or to show affection and compete with each other to be the leader. They learn to shrug off criticism and be assertive in order to be accepted by other boys.

Little girls learn to play nicely together in order to be accepted by other girls and are rewarded by teachers and parents alike for being quiet, cooperative and always agreeable. Girls can be reluctant to push themselves forward and criticism can undermine a girl’s confidence to a greater degree than for boys. While this agreeable behavior often helps girls do better in structured classroom settings in school and university, it can hold women back when they enter the workforce.

The article emphasizes how confidence is crucial to being accepted as a leader. Confidence is not just as important as competence but can be seen as more important in winning the trust of clients and others. Men often have a life-long expectation and practice of acting with confidence whether they have it or not. The article cites many studies showing men typically over-estimate how well they will do on a test or how qualified they are for a job posting while women typically under-estimate their abilities in the same situations.

There is, however, a further challenge for women that men rarely face. Women know from experience that being seen as too confident, aggressive or “pushy” can cause both men and women not to like or trust a woman leader.

Women pay a heavier penalty for not being liked that can cost them a promotion or their jobs. This is the constant line that Hillary Clinton walks in needing to be seen as a confident and tough leader but still showing her caring and compassionate side in order to be liked and trusted enough to get elected.

There is another issue with respect to building confidence that is not addressed in the Atlantic article but is captured in the phrase “the imposter syndrome”. The dictionary defines an imposter as someone who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others. There is an underlying feeling amongst some women that they are undeserving or not worthy of their accomplishments. This feeling is much more powerful than mere self-doubt.

People who have traditionally not held power (women, visible minorities, people with little education or social status) are constantly wary of being ostracized for not belonging or fitting in – of being seen as imposters trying to act like the elite.

Outsiders know that they are newly arrived into the halls of power. They know that they may not be aware of the accepted rules of behavior and may behave in ways that will make them stand out and be easily excluded. Class distinctions are the clearest examples of this. When successful people from working class backgrounds find themselves in the country-club atmosphere of a corporate culture they know they are in foreign territory. Will they hold their fork properly? Will they understand the subtle inside jokes? Will they be accepted?

Women can face similar challenges. Women may speak or behave in ways that men unconsciously or consciously believe are not appropriate for those wanting power or leadership positions. Women face contradictory expectations of being assertive but caring; commanding but supportive; tough but compassionate. Even if they do get the balance right, there may be a price to pay for not meeting traditional expectations of women always being in supportive rather than leadership positions.

Workplaces designed and led by men are not gender neutral though often men, as well as women who have succeeded there, are unaware of this. The brilliant work being done globally by Barbara Annis in creating gender inclusive workplaces shows how more profitable and successful businesses and law firms can be when they become aware of these differences and work to change them.

Many women lawyers feel they must be careful not to be too feminine (or worse “feminist”) in their behavior or speech if they want access to positions of power or influence alongside men. Having to act like a man in order to succeed is exhausting. Not only does this deprive our workplaces of the total energy and creativity of many of our female lawyers, it can drive women to leave places where they do not feel they can be their authentic selves.

We are all at our best when we bring our authentic selves to work. However, we must also educate both men and women about the legitimate differences in the ways that women and men communicate, behave and make decisions.

It is only when we have authenticity plus inclusion that more women will move into positions of greater responsibility and leadership in the law.


  1. Dear Linda,

    I received this article through SLAW, and after hearing an extensive interview with Katty Kay and Claire Shipman on the CBC.

    Needless to say, I found your commentary significantly more illuminating than the article or interview. In particular, I appreciate the last few paragraphs on authenticity. For me, that is the essential take-away. Indeed, I then read your piece on “legitimate differences”, which expands on the concept nicely.

    I look forward to reading your next post.

    Best wishes,