Diversity at What Cost? How Imposter Syndrome Affects Women of Color

Maryam Gamar, Magazine Writer

(Photo/ Pexels)

As the words left his mouth, Scheherazade Safla remembers feeling shock and anger. “You’re never going to understand it. Because you’re a woman.”

In 1995 at age 14, Safla, a mixed-raced student, enrolled in the 10th grade at one of South Africa’s previously all-white schools; students of color had only just begun to attend these schools a year earlier with the end of apartheid. Inspired by her aunt who had studied medicine during apartheid, Safla was motivated to understand even the most difficult concepts in her physical science class. But when she approached her white male teacher for help, he expressed contempt at her interest and brushed off her request.

This experience is not unique as women everywhere struggle to be taken seriously in professional spaces. But race, in addition to gender, plays a part in the routine degradation of a woman’s abilities. As a woman of color in South Africa, Safla said that she was used to being judged for her race. In fact, many of the teachers at her high school were unhappy with the diversification of their classrooms and this often influenced their treatment of students, she explained.

After graduating in 1997, Safla went on to become an accomplished journalist and broadcast producer who has risen above the discouragement she faced in her high school classroom. But many women, specifically women of color, continue to struggle with what seems like an affront from two directions. Women of color stand on the intersection of their race and gender—two marginalized communities— and this means that they struggle to succeed while facing biases and stereotypes that work against them. The constant struggle to overcome these can cultivate insecurities and internalized negativity which in turn can manifest into imposter syndrome.

According to the Harvard Business Review, imposter syndrome is defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” The term was coined in 1987 by researchers who had studied 150 successful women and found that these women, despite their intelligence and achievements, still doubted themselves. Imposter syndrome recognizes the gravity of the challenges that women in the workplace face right away. The researchers behind the study, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, stated in their abstract that family dynamics and the social pressure to conform with gender roles can “contribute significantly to the development of the impostor phenomenon.”

Such feelings of being an imposter are often intensified in underprivileged communities as external biases become internalized as self-doubt or self-criticism, and women of color must deal with biases against both their race and gender. “For us, imposter syndrome isn’t just an imaginary voice in our heads,” said African American journalist Jolie A. Doggett in a HuffPost article. “We can hear it loud and clear when we receive almost daily messages from society that we truly don’t belong.”

In order to overcome these feelings of inadequacy and alienation, it is first important to understand why they come to exist. According to Safla, “it’s because there’s so many eyes on you.”

Having worked in journalism for 20 years, Safla has spent a fair share of her time in front of an audience. She remembers feeling surprised at the viewer responses she got as a news anchor working for South Africa’s first 24-hour news service a few years ago. Although she was presenting on stories about the fall of Gaddafi in Libya and gang-related taxi violence in South Africa, the vast majority of viewer feedback she received was about what she was wearing or how she looked, she said. Not only did this devalue her professional authority, she added, but it also made her reflect on how she viewed herself and whether she believed the negative comments people were expressing about her online.

Women may struggle with self-doubt but where does this uncertainty come from? Safla said that the root of the problem is outsider opinion. These unwanted criticisms, she explained, trigger insecurities that individuals harbor long after comments are deleted or news stories go on air. This is an issue that extends beyond imposter syndrome, one that values a woman’s looks over her professional ability and fosters a double standard, which men are not subject to.

Misogynistic opinions often overlap with racial biases in many workplaces and when entering a workplace as a woman of color, these two often go hand in hand.

“I do feel that I carry the weight of representing my race and classification as a Black woman,” said Phoenix Harvey, the director of marketing of high school & institutional solutions at Macmillan Publishers based in New York City.

She is often the only person of color in the room, Harvey said, adding that this is not something she feels is a burden, but rather a disappointment, as it speaks to the social acceptability of a lack of diversity. If there is one non-white person in the room, this is perceived as a win in many workplaces, but this norm reduces women of color to a quota which in turn reduces their self-worth because of the constant question: “am I here because of my credentials or just to check a box?” she explained.

Being the “only one” also fosters feelings of isolation and lack of community. The concept of social capital—the way groups use relationships, shared identity and values—is important in feeling accepted within a group, according to Dr. Sawssan Ahmed, a clinical psychologist of women’s mental health at Sidra Hospital. “Underprivileged groups don’t tend to have social capital in organizations, corporations, [and] academia that majority privileged groups do have,” said Ahmed. The lack of diversity in these spaces fuels stereotypes against women of color, so diversifying workspaces benefits not only women of color but also people in positions of privilege because it corrects stereotypical ideology, she added.

As a young Black woman studying at the University of Illinois’ majority-white campus, Jasmine Kirby, now an instruction and engagement librarian at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, said that her peers often used to assume that her race meant that she was disadvantaged and had overcome obstacles to secure a college education. “A lot of people assumed I was low-income in college because I am Black, and they conflate the two things,” said Kirby.

She said she remembers people would suggest that she should apply for financial aid scholarships and would then be surprised when she told them that her father was a doctor. Kirby added that she also had to deflect frequent assumptions that she was a first-generation college student when in reality both of her parents had spent years in academia.

Of course, low-income Black communities and first-generation women of color students exist, but the problem lies in the assumption that all women of color are disadvantaged and therefore less likely to succeed. Seeing a Black woman pursuing a college degree should not be a surprise because this reaction reduces her to a success story or an example of resilience. It cultivates tokenism and devalues her experience by setting her apart as an anomaly rather than accepting her accomplishments as her own.

“I definitely think we need to stop apologizing,” said Safla when asked how she thinks women of color can overcome imposter syndrome. Safla recounted a recent Zoom call she participated in where two women were speaking, one a director and the other an intern. According to Safla, throughout the call, one of the women would continuously apologize whenever she finished speaking, while the other woman would say, “I hope that wasn’t all over the place.” These disclaimers were unnecessary and harmful to the speakers’ credibility, stated Safla, adding that this act of voicing self-doubt is a shield because it provides comfort by softening the blow of negative comments from others.

“My worst fear is to come across as sounding over-confident or arrogant. But why should we feel like that as women?” said Safla.

According to Dr. Ahmed, overcoming imposter syndrome requires familiarity with one’s social context which has “created a dynamic where people from underprivileged groups or underrepresented groups, especially in positions of power, feel like they don’t belong.”

Understanding this context and how it intersects with sexism and racism is key for women of color to overcome imposter syndrome. However, the work must come from both sides. People in positions of privilege must ask how they can be of service and then listen to the response. That way, women of color can take up the space they need.

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