Do Working Women Suffer From ‘Imposter Syndrome’?

10 Nov 2011

written by Carolyn


A recent Wall Street Journal article asked: are all successful women secretly insecure? This is the thesis of a new book, “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women,” by Valerie Young, which claims working women suffer from something called “imposter syndrome” and harbor doubts about their skills, intelligence and level of confidence. According to the WSJ, Young claims women suffering from this syndrome “are convinced that other people’s praise and recognition of their accomplishments is undeserved, chalking up their achievements to chance, charm, connections and other external factors.”


Do working women occasionally harbor doubts about their ability to perform in the workplace? Sure. In the current economic climate, with employers looking to improve the bottom line by reducing expenses – which usually means reductions in headcount – all employees are probably harboring a bit of self-doubt these days. This is not the time to be cocky and over-confident at work. But are women more insecure at work than men? I can’t say I agree.

It’s well-documented that women often fail to ask for raises and promotions that they deserve, often because asking for the raise or promotion is often considered “aggressive” behavior that counts against women. But where women have achieved success in the workplace, I think we feel, for the most part, that our titles, salaries and positions of responsibility and authority are well-earned.

I’ve found we working mothers in particular tend to be more, not less, confident about our work performance. Being a working mother sharpens your focus at work like little else. You don’t have time to goof off on the Internet, or chit-chat in the pantry, or gossip at lunch with co-workers. When you have to leave the office by 5 pm sharp, no matter what, because your kid’s afterschool program will take any kid not picked up by 6 pm to the local police precinct, you tend to work more efficiently and effectively. You may worry about the impact your lack of networking may have on your ability to earn the confidence necessary to be promoted, but you know the work you do while you are in the office, and after the kids are home, fed and in bed, is solid.

In my experience, working mothers feel more confident about the work we do in the workplace than how we perform at home. Our work performance is measurable. There are metrics that tell us when we are doing a good job. We launched the company’s new e-commerce site. We closed that $1 billion acquisition. We settled that securities claim. We oversaw yet another successful Board meeting. Our successes at work are tangible, and most of us take full credit for them.

Home is a different matter.

Do you measure the quality of your parenting by your kids’ school performance? By the number of friends they have? By how many times you receive a call at work from the principal’s office? Does not baking brownies for the annual bake sale, or volunteering for the school auction, or chaperoning the overnight field trip, make you a bad mother? Does collapsing in bed after a full day at work plus extra work hours at home, with barely the energy to acknowledge your spouse’s existence, make you a bad wife? These are the things we question. The workplace becomes a refuge, the one place where we feel we are making a real contribution. If women are filled with doubt, if we suffer from “imposter syndrome,” it’s at home, not at work.

As the WSJ’s review of Young’s book points out, books like these do a disservice to working women by sending the wrong message. It would be more useful to study how family obligations impact workplace performance, both positively and negatively, or how women’s managerial styles can be leveraged for the benefit of an organization. Presenting working women as delicate flowers whose job performance is compromised because we’re all consumed with fears of our own inadequacy, belies the reality of women’s leadership in all spheres of our society.

2 Comments on Do Working Women Suffer From ‘Imposter Syndrome’?

  1. Ashley

    I was first introduced to “impostor syndrome” when I went back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree. In the very first night of the “so you’re going back to school as an adult” class that everyone in my program has to take, the instructor provided a great article about this syndrome in relation to adult learners. “What Is College Really Like for Adult Students?” by Stephen D. Brookfield. One aspect of Brookfield’s article looks at the way many students feel that they really don’t deserve to be back in school, that someone will discover they aren’t smart enough, aren’t capable of the work.

    Some studies have shown a high rate of this sort of thinking among high-achieving women, but it’s becoming more known among other groups. It’s too bad that the WSJ article and book focus on working women, but they certainly aren’t the only ones who struggle with this.

    As a working woman, wife, mother and student, I’ve experienced a mixture of confidence and impostorship. Most people I know feel both ways at times, and everything in between as well.

  2. Retha

    You are speaking to my soul Carolyn!

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