Imposter Syndrome Triggered by Workplace Environments

There are many layers to this workplace-triggered imposter syndrome, and the impact is significant and long-lasting.

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The following is a theme from my book You’re Absolutely Worth It: Release Self-Doubt, Embrace Confidence, and Own Your Yes.

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In my previous article Rename Imposter Syndrome Growing Pains, I focused on how ambitious, goal-oriented women can impose self-impose fear and doubt on themselves as they pursue new goals and opportunities.

But there’s another reality that warrants discussion – imposter syndrome caused by the workplace environment. These are workplaces that constrict a woman’s talent and aspirations with barriers to advancement, minimize their contributions, with cultures that prioritize “others”, causing her to question her skills, value, and leadership ability. There are many layers to this workplace-triggered imposter syndrome, and the impact is significant and long-lasting.

Let’s take a look at a few factors that can have long-term implications.

Lack of Representation

During the first quarter of 2021, only 41 women lead Fortune 500 companies (8.2%). The lack of representation starts early in a woman’s career; known as the “broken rung,” women struggle to get promoted to first-time manager roles at the same rate as men and it has long-term effects on the talent pipeline. According to the 2020 McKinsey Women in the Workplace study, “For every 100 men promoted to first-time manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: Only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted.”

Not seeing enough women represented at various levels of leadership sends a glaring massage about who, or what, the company values. The optics – which can start early in a woman’s career –  is that she is not as qualified or skilled enough to lead in organizations. And for women of color, this message is more profound given the greater disparity in representation.

Marginalization and Discrimination

Marginalization happens at work when someone in authority has preconceived negative beliefs about a direct report or peer. For women, the marginalization can be due to their gender, but also layered because of race, sexual orientation, family status – it’s all subjective to person in authority. Left unchecked it leads right into discrimination.

Because of the preconceived negative beliefs, the woman may be denied opportunities, receive lower wages, be isolated, questioned about her decisions, underrecognized for her contributions, or blatantly disrespected.

As a result, the woman may begin to believe her contributions are not valid, her ideas are not sound, and that she might not have what it takes to succeed.

In these situations, marginalized and discriminated women don’t just feel like imposters, they are made to feel like they are imposters – regardless of how confident they really are.

Homogenous Culture

Organizational culture is inevitable – it speaks to how people exist and thrive in the workplace together. But what happens what the culture doesn’t allow for “others” to be accepted and advance?

For example, if the corporate culture values people who work well into the evenings – how does a woman who has children, or who for various other reasons simply can’t work in the evenings, thrive in that organization? She might be made to feel as if she’s not “up to par” with colleagues or question whether she’s fit for her role, regardless if she delivers results during her working hours.

Or for example, if the culture suggests that only those who have a certain background or hobby can access and get the support of senior leadership. Women who don’t have those similarities might question whether they’re capable of advancing – despite being highly skilled.

It’s important to discuss imposter syndrome not just as something a woman feels because she’s not sure of herself. In some cases, she might be confident, but her workplace environment does not support or foster her growth, causing her question her talents and abilities.

Perhaps the truth is that she might need to take her talents to an organization where she is valued for what she brings to the table and leave the imposter syndrome triggers behind.

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