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The Imposter Syndrome and How It Disproportionately Affects the Oppressed

It’s 2020 and most post secondary programs and job industries are more diverse than ever.  Women and people of colour are successfully infiltrating spaces that have previously been dominated by white men. I see this first-hand at the Smith School of Business. I remember that when I came home for Thanksgiving during my first year, my father asked me what the ratio of male students to female students was. I was confused by the question and explained that it was pretty even. He was shocked, as he had known the school to be disproportionately occupied by men in the past. He then asked more about the racial diversity. I explained that it was not nearly as bad as I had expected and that it was probably more diverse than my high school had been. Again, this information was surprising to him. 

That Thanksgiving break went by quickly, as they all do, and soon it was time for midterms. I remember the anxiety that came with them. I studied hard, but in the end, I didn’t come close to reaching my goals. My grades were fine, not good or great, just fine. I remember feeling completely devastated. These midterms made me feel like a complete failure, and in my eyes, they served as confirmation that my acceptance into the program had been a fluke. I obviously did not belong at the Smith School of Business.

After our grades were released, I braced myself for the inevitable: talking about them. To me, this was the greatest punishment. Having others know that I didn’t belong was far worse than just knowing it myself. But, in the following weeks, I made some interesting observations: Firstly, my female peers of colour who did well generally kept it to themselves and did not act any differently. Furthermore, racialized female students who did not do well seemed to be greatly impacted by their marks (like I was). On the other hand, many of my white male peers who did well wore their success as badges that confirmed what they already knew: they belonged. At the same time, my white male peers who did poorly seemed to have an easier time shrugging it off. I knew many classmates who did much worse than me, but somehow, they did not seem to internalize it the way I did.

Of course, none of the reactions stated above were wrong or problematic. I never found myself to be resentful toward my privileged peers who managed to let their high marks boost their self-esteem while also filtering out the negative thoughts that come with not meeting one’s standards. Truthfully, I envied this ability.

Throughout the year, things changed for me academically. I started going to my professors’ office hours, I had a better idea of general expectations, and I learned studying techniques that worked for me. By the end of the year, I was proud of my GPA and academic accomplishments. Yet I still felt exactly the same. I still lacked self-efficacy, and I do to this day. This psychological pattern of self-doubt paired with the perpetual fear of being exposed as a fraud is called the imposter syndrome. While anyone can suffer from it, it disproportionately affects women, specifically women of colour.

A BBC article by Sheryl Nance-Nash sheds light on the issue and why marginalized groups are more likely to experience it. In the article, Nance-Nash discusses how she personally struggled with the imposter syndrome while working as a black woman for a magazine company. The article ultimately asks: Why are women, especially women of colour, incredibly likely to experience the imposter syndrome? Emily Hu, a clinical psychologist from Los Angeles, states: “We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don't see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field.” Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist from New York claims, “Women, women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community are most at risk. When you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or undeserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur.”

That answers the question of why the imposter syndrome disproportionately affects women and people of colour, but we must ask ourselves, how can we change this narrative? Psychologist and author Richard Orbé-Austin weighs in: “Talking about your imposter syndrome is the first step to dealing with it, rather than suffering in silence. Identify allies and advocates in the workplace who believe in you and are supportive of you professionally.” Hu reiterates, “Don't be afraid to admit you're struggling. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you're not the only one doubting yourself. This goes a long way toward validating the way you're feeling, which can be helpful for convincing yourself that the imposter syndrome actually isn't real the next time you experience it.”

It makes sense. If so many of us are struggling from this syndrome, speaking out can only help us realize that this psychological pattern is an internalization of the systemic racism and misogyny ingrained into our society, not a reflection of our lack of competence. Furthermore, by speaking out about our experiences, we can create a more vulnerable, safer space for each other. The imposter syndrome makes you feel 3 feet tall, but it also makes others feel like giants. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have put another student on a pedestal in my mind, only to later see them breaking down or even asking me for help. Yet every time this has happened, it has not made me think less of the individual. Instead, it has made me feel less alone. I hope this blog post can do the same for someone else.


About the Author

Ttisa Rashford

Ttisa is a second year student at the Smith School of Business. Some of her interests are hockey, politics, and music. Ttisa participates in the Commerce Society through 3 executives: QMA, HSL, and SBBA. Her most recently added club is SBBA, which she joined because of her passion for activism. Ttisa is passionate about social issues, and believes education and empathy can lead to a better society for all. 


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