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Ladies, You Are The Experts in the Room: Fighting Impostor Syndrome

Recently I attended a training that involved practicing introducing ourselves as professionals, I dare say, even experts. Picture some of the most influential or up-and-coming nonprofit leaders in the community, all wearing dress shirts and pantyhose, sitting in a circle, taking turn after turn, listing their title and why they are “the expert in the room” in their area of profession.

“Hi, my name is Susie, and I’m an expert in…” At 22 years old, how can I claim I’m an expert in anything? Maybe sleeping? Doggo talk? Letting my tea go cold before I finish it?

I thought to myself, how did I get here? When are they going to realize I’m not cut out to be here? How do I gracefully exit?

These thoughts have raced through my mind, so quickly at times I can barely process them. We find ourselves in situations, positions, and taking on tasks that we feel at any moment, someone could realize we’re not actually cut out for, we’re fakes, and then we’ll be disgracefully outed. Perhaps it began when I sat in an upper level biology class that my test scores said I was cut out for, but myself did not. It’s continued all the way to the moment I was offered my dream job and I admitted to my supervisor, I don’t feel cut out to be here, but I like to think I am.

These intrusive thoughts are known as impostor syndrome, or more accurately experience or phenomenon (IP). While both men and women experience it, some research shows women experience it more often while other studies suggest men do at the same rate, but are less likely to admit the experience due to the social taboo of talking about feelings. What is agreed upon though is that IP can be more consequential for women, one theory being it affects the rate at which women are promoted to upper management positions, which is much less often than men.

Fittingly, IP was first theorized by female American psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.

“Hi, my name is Susie, and I’m an expert in crisis services for sexual violence survivors because…” Because nothing. I have no real proof of work, just luck.

Women are more likely to chalk up their success to luck, blessings, a mistake–you name it, women will say it did it for them more often than admitting they did it themselves. This is partially due to the culture women have been raised in as young girls and the culture of their professional lives as women. To understand this, one has to have an understanding of sexism in the American culture.

As girls, we were taught that leadership makes us bossy, being outspoken means we’re loud, ambition is us being controlling, and personal success is selfish. This can be seen in the words we use to speak to young girls, telling them to be quieter, kinder, and to share. The traits that our society values in leadership such as assertiveness, independence, and competitiveness, are more often instilled in boys and viewed as negative descriptors words for girls.

The same lessons carry over to their careers. They don’t want to claim success because they’ll look too full of themselves, greedy, or cocky (when really its just decent confidence) that they downplay to passive descriptors (or introductions), which can cause others–perhaps those hiring those upper level management positions–to doubt them even further than society already does. When women possess those traits in their professional lives (as needed to succeed) it feels uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and unassociated with how they identify, as if they were faking them. Thus, faking their success.

One way to fight impostorism is the way we talk about ourselves and our successes. You are an expert, and when you speak on your expertise ladies, remember the following suggestions:

  1. Matter of Fact Delivery: I am an expert. This is a fact. Do not dispute.
  2. Quantify, and No Lowballing: Numbers are power. You’ve worked five or six years? Six years it is. You’ve presented a few times? Ten presentations, own that number.
  3. The I in We: Being a team player is honorable, but not when you’re the expert. Remember yourself and don’t share the credit.
  4. Personal Experience: Don’t doubt the power of your personal experiences, often times they’re what shaped out professional choices and people can relate.
  5. Shiny Bauble: You’ve won an award, were recognized for something, have a cool title? Share it. Grab their attention and then dazzle them with everything else.
  6. 30 Second Rule: Keep it within the human attention span.
  7. Jargon vs Metaphors: Jargon can show expertise to similar experts, but to those who practice outside of your profession, using metaphors can help them understand your awesomeness.
  8. Passion vs Evidence: They can tell you’re passionate through your voice, but provide evidence through experiences. We know you have them.
  9. Specification: Be specific on your work and accomplishments.

“Hi, my name is Susie, and I’m an expert in crisis services for sexual violence survivors because personally I have been a survivor of sexual harassment since I was 16, and professionally, I have provided direct emotional support and navigation through systems survivors encounter due to their assaults for over four years. I’ve worked with over four-hundred survivors.”

Simply learning about impostor experiences and identifying it in your own life can help lessen its effects. Then, we’re able to see in our every day experiences. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated,

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.
We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much.
You should aim to be successful, but not too successful.
Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”

Let the man be threatened. The women are too busy becoming and being experts to care.

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