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Reframing Imposter Syndrome

by Shari Graydon
Image of Sweta Rajan

Sweta Rajan defines imposter syndrome as “a symptom of the systemic barriers women navigate every day”

and Sweta Rajan

SHARI: Sweta, when we spoke for the first time recently about how we might collaborate, you vented a bit about the whole notion of “imposter syndrome”. This is something that comes up in our workshops all the time — the extent to which many educated, experienced and competent women feel like they’re not knowledgeable enough to declare themselves equipped to pontificate in public. 

What did you mean when you declared yourself “so done” with the concept of imposter syndrome?

SWETA: Shari, thank you so much for inviting me into this conversation. I am really looking forward to working with you as an associate facilitator in the coming year.

As a co-founder of Immigrant and International Women in Science, this is something I have also often come across. We have brilliant, internationally trained women who bring exceptional skill sets to this country. And yet a lot of them struggle with “imposter syndrome”, where they hesitate to voice their opinion and share their expertise because they think others know better. After meeting so many remarkable women, I began to dig a little deeper.

The best way to describe how I feel about impostor syndrome is with an example. I recently had a baby; he is 7 months old now. And during my pregnancy I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. In my initial meeting with the dietitian, she told me that two thirds of women can manage their sugar levels with diet and exercise, so most likely I would not need insulin. She then gave me some tips and sent me home. 

Over the weekend I tried everything suggested and more. I measured and calculated every mouthful I ate and went out for walks, timed everything as recommended… and nothing worked. By the end of day two, I was in tears. I completely blamed myself for not being able to control my blood sugar levels. Even though I knew I was doing everything they recommended, I took it as a personal fault. If most women can control it, why wasn’t I able to? 

Finally, in desperation I called my friend who specializes in gestational diabetes, explained my diagnosis, and asked what am I doing wrong? She said, “You are pre-diabetic. Only 1 out of 10 of my pre-diabetic clients can manage their blood sugar with diet and exercise.” 

SHARI: That must have been both reassuring and validating.

SWETA: Yes, you can imagine my surprise and relief!

This is what I find frustrating about the dialogue around imposter syndrome. We keep telling women they have imposter syndrome because they lack confidence. We ask them to lean in, we ask them to speak up, we offer workshops and training programs and set up mentorship models to help build their confidence. 

But we don’t utter a word about the double bind they face at almost every turn. 

Women are scrutinized more, they face more severe sexism and racism online, their credentials are overlooked, their expertise constantly questioned, they are interrupted more and ignored more

SHARI: Indeed. Fifty years after her heyday in Hollywood, the “Ginger Rogers” scenario is alive and well. (She was Fred Astaire’s dance partner in the 1930s who famously quipped that although his skills were celebrated, she had to do everything he did, but backwards and in high heels.)

SWETA: Exactly. And for women with intersectional identities, it is all that while walking on a tightrope stretched between cliffs!

As Melinda Gates says, we are sending our daughters into workplaces designed for our dads. We are constantly trying to adapt to places which were not developed with us in mind. Is it any wonder that women feel like they do not belong?  

When I was missing the critical piece of information that pre-diabetic women are generally insulin-dependent during their pregnancy, all my mental resources were dedicated to figuring out how to manage my diabetes with diet and exercise. Once I knew, I quickly moved to acceptance and spent my time and energy on having a healthy baby. 

Imposter syndrome is really a symptom of the systemic barriers women navigate every day. So focusing on “fixing” women’s confidence is like addressing the symptom without looking at the root cause. 

Even the language centres the problem on the person and not the structure. When we say imposter syndrome, we automatically assume that the lack is in the person experiencing it. The term says nothing about the environment in which the person is operating.

SHARI: This framing is so critical — not just for women to understand, but for all the organizations and institutions that are helping to perpetuate the barriers by focusing their attention in the wrong place. We look forward to amplifying your perspective and having you share concrete strategies with other women through your upcoming workshops.

SWETA: Thank you! As actress Amy Poehler said – “It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for. It takes years to find your voice and seize your real estate.” 

This pandemic has gifted us with the opportunity to reimagine our work environments so they reflect and meet the diverse needs of the current workforce. I look forward to sharing some concrete steps we can all take to create psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces.

Register now for Reframing Imposter Syndrome, a two-part workshop facilitated by Sweta Rajan

Sweta Rajan identifies as a woman in science, a person of colour and an immigrant. Originally from India, her two decades of experience working in STEM fields across North America inspired her to found/co-found 3 platforms: Inclusion Advantage Consultancy, Next You Coaching and IWS Network. She currently works with leaders, individuals and policy makers to help them understand systemic barriers underrepresented groups face, and create inclusive workplaces.

Shari Graydon is the Catalyst of Informed Opinions, a non-profit working to amplify women’s voices and ensure they have as much influence in Canada’s public conversations as men’s.

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