If you ever feel like an imposter at work—or felt like one in school—you stand in good company. “It’s common to feel this way, and women tend to feel the imposter syndrome more intensely than do men,” says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and author of Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times.
Widespread societal beliefs that women are less competent than men, especially in traditionally male fields, can negatively impact the way women think and feel about their own skills and abilities. That critical voice in your head telling you that you are not ready, or not the expert in the room, or not the right person for a job is a personal manifestation of these societal biases. The imposter syndrome can impact women at every level and in every profession, including Cooper herself, she adds.
But, as the underlying principle of all research goes, knowledge is power, and if you know where your feelings of self-doubt come from, you can change the way you respond to them. For example, Cooper says, “I take a deep breath and push forward when I have moments of hesitation.”
For more empowering insights, we asked Cooper for three things she wished every woman working for pay knew:
- Gender still matters a lot. “After advancing a great deal, we are in what’s called the stalled gender revolution. Women make up less than 5% of S&P 500 CEOs and only 19% of Congress. Women do not comprise 50% of leadership in any field. We still aren’t being equally heard and we don’t have equal influence. Gender bias still exists, and much work remains to be done to advance gender equality.”
- Leaders are not born; they are made. “Too often women don’t pursue a leadership role because they think it’s just not who they are. But it’s not a matter of who you are—it’s who you want to become. Developing an identity as a leader is a process. It’s something you acquire after engaging in leadership behaviors and activities. So do take leadership opportunities offered to you, and don’t take yourself out of the game before you’ve even entered it.”
- Having a mom who works can benefit children. “A lot of working mothers experience guilt and worry that their time on the job will have a negative impact. But research shows that when children have high quality care, girls of working moms have higher levels of wellbeing and educational attainment, make more money as adults and hold more supervisory positions. Boys who grow up in equal homes are more likely to support and advocate for equality as adults. And men whose mothers worked also do more housework. We feel like we’re coming up short when it comes to our kids because the standards for what being a good mother is are higher today than in previous generations. Sociologists call this the rise of intensive mothering. The good mother today is solely focused on the needs of her children. Working mothers compare themselves to this higher standard and feel like they are not doing enough at home. But research shows that working mothers today spend as much time on primary childcare activities as stay-at-home mothers did in the 70s.”