Have you ever felt like you’re in over your head at work? Like you’re in a role you’re not qualified for? That someone is about to notice you don’t belong here and demote you?

So have an estimated 70% of people.

This feeling is usually put down to ‘imposter syndrome’. You’ve probably noticed the plethora of workshops, books and articles out there about how to overcome it. Women’s conferences often feature sessions like this.

Raquel Tamez touched on this in her keynote at the 2020 Girls in Tech Conference, saying:

In recent years it has become ‘trendy’ to discuss how we, mainly women and people of colour, suffer from imposter syndrome – an inability to internalise one’s accomplishment with this persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

But she refuses to buy into it, going on to say, “Worries about not knowing enough or not being good enough are natural, but you’re not suffering from some kind of ‘syndrome’.

Recently, we’ve been wondering if we need to rethink the whole concept. Is this feeling something we’ve developed on our own? Or is it actually ‘career gaslighting’, a result of conditioning that society has placed on women?

An industry designed for women

While both men and women experience ‘imposter syndrome’, the term originally arose out of a research study in the 70s on high performing women.

The findings have gone on to inspire “decades of thought leadership, programs, and initiatives to address imposter syndrome in women” according to a Harvard Business Review article.

While we know that feelings of self-doubt are particularly common in working women, we have to wonder what would happen if this wasn’t brushed off as ‘imposter syndrome’. If this industry wasn’t designed to tell us ‘it’s okay to feel like this’. Because we’re not convinced it’s always a product of our own insecurities.

Nerves are normal, workplace-induced trauma isn’t

Anyone who’s started a new job will relate to those first-day jitters. Starting anything new can be daunting, even when you know your stuff. Nerves are actually a good sign! They’re very closely related to excitement and show that you actually care about your work.

It’s when that nervousness doesn’t go away, or intensifies with time, that you should be addressing it. And note that ‘addressing it’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘changing yourself’ – it could be a matter of more closely assessing your environment.

Systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases in your workplace could be feeding that nervousness, leading to workplace-induced trauma that doesn’t go away – no matter how many workshops on imposter syndrome you attend.

The tech industry, known to be lacking in gender diversity, is a prime example. Research shows that over 50% of women leave the tech industry by age 35. 51% of them identify company culture and lack of support as a contributing factor, while 52% list lack of role models (because most potential role models have left by 35!).

Even if it’s subconscious, organizational culture can fuel pre-existing biases towards women and people of color, stunting their development and leading to the feeling of imposter syndrome. This could be evident in language used or lack of leadership opportunities for women.

So how can we advocate for ourselves better?

No one can (or should) know everything

The first step is to identify that companies or colleagues can exploit a perceived lack of knowledge or experience. But that doesn’t mean you need to know everything. You just need to be comfortable not knowing.

Raquel Tamez says, “Identify the gap in your knowledge or experience and work towards closing it. The gaps are always going to be there. Accept this. Get comfortable with this. You’re okay.”

We need to accept that knowledge gaps aren’t a sign of incompetence. In fact, it’s actually beneficial to adopt a Beginner’s Mind and attitude towards your work. A desire to be constantly learning and growing is a positive quality in employees.

But we know that when you’re trapped in the belief that you’re not good enough, it can be hard to get out of that space. Here are some reminders that you are where you’re meant to be.

Reasons you’re not an imposter

You worked hard to get here

Even if you got a job because you were ‘in the right place at the right time’, you deserve it. You may not know everything now, but we bet you’re working your butt off to get there.

People need your expertise

When your colleagues come to you with tough questions or needing help, it shows that you’re a specialist. Be encouraged by the fact that people need you. If you don’t have an immediate solution, you can help them find one.

You have unique skills and strengths

Perhaps you don’t have the same qualifications or lightning-fast abilities as another colleague, but you offer value. You’re unique and bring your own experience – that’s what makes you a good fit for this role.

Things you can do to convince yourself

Talk about it

This is so simple, but being open and honest about your worries can help put it in perspective and alleviate anxiety. Chat to a mentor, friends or family, or a therapist to get a different perspective.

Focus on your strengths

Don’t look at what you can’t do. Focus instead on your strengths. A tool such as CliftonStrengths can help you understand your unique capabilities and how to use them in the workplace.

Remember what you’ve achieved

Try not to compare yourself to others and remember that success is all relative. Keep your own achievements top of mind. Some people find it helpful having a list of wins on hand to pull out when they need a confidence boost.

How to do something about the underlying issue

Before feeling the need to change yourself (or attend another workshop on imposter syndrome), think about and discuss what’s really going on. If you think you’re unfairly being made to feel a certain way, consider talking to HR or approaching the person making you doubt yourself.

Remember, discriminatory workplace language or actions can seem small, but may have a huge effect on your confidence levels. Don’t let it go on unchecked – call it out.

If you don’t feel safe doing this, tap into other women for advice and support. Our Girls in Tech community is here for that reason.

It’s important to protect your mental health as well as your career progression. If ‘imposter syndrome’ is really getting to you, look at ways to manage anxious thoughts or have a chat with a therapist.