Four wooden balls with happy faces drawn on. A fifth one with a sad face is in the background, representing imposter syndrome.
Image: © tomertu/

Is imposter syndrome actually a myth?

26 Feb 2020

A recent survey found that women are just as confident as men in their abilities at work. Does that mean imposter syndrome isn’t as much of a challenge as we once believed?

The vast majority of people have felt like they can’t do their job at some point in their lives. This can often feel like we’re not as competent as we once were, that we’re out of our depth with a new role, or that we’ve been fooling everyone around us and we’ll be found out any day now. This is what imposter syndrome feels like.

Some estimates say that 70pc of people may have experienced imposter syndrome. There’s plenty of research around the different types of imposter syndrome, the fact that it can manifest in students, not just workers, and how diverse groups can be more vulnerable to feeling the brunt of it.

With all this in mind, it’s safe to say imposter syndrome definitely exists. However, a recent survey from the Wundamail Women at Work Report has suggested that imposter syndrome has been wrongly identified as a factor in the gender gap when it comes to career progression.

According to the report: “Conventional wisdom points to the female propensity for imposter syndrome – feelings of chronic self-doubt that persist despite external proof of their competence.

“It’s a popular female narrative, and one that ties in conveniently with the self-help, wellness and magazine industries.”

Women don’t lack confidence

The report, which surveyed 10,000 trained professionals in the UK and US, suggests that both men and women feel equally equipped for management positions and are confident advocating for themselves in a high-pressure work situation. In fact, two-thirds of both men and women said they felt they “could easily do their manager’s job to a better standard than them”.

A lack of confidence has often been used as a reason there aren’t more women in senior positions. However, Work180 founder Gemma Lloyd previously spoke to about the misconception around women lacking confidence.

“Research has shown that this isn’t the case, it’s just that women and men are rewarded differently for displaying confidence,” she said.

“This comes down to the societal norms placed on gender roles and that women who appear more confident are less likeable. Therefore, we have been ‘conditioned’ to be more modest within the workplace, despite being confident in our abilities.”

Progression becomes an issue

So, if women’s confidence matches their male counterparts’ confidence levels, where does the career progression come into play?  The Wundamail survey also suggested only 47pc of women aspire to take on their manager’s role in the future, compared to 72pc of men.

Does that mean women aren’t as ambitious as men? Do they need to show off their equal amounts of confidence more often? Toot their own horn more? Lean in?

This infamous narrative is where the ‘confidence gap’ myth may stem from and could provide an all-too-simple solution to a very complex problem.

In a piece for The Atlantic, Stéphanie Thomson goes into detail about why a lack of confidence isn’t what’s holding working women back. She even highlights two pieces of research suggesting that not only will women acting more confident not help their career progression, it could actually hinder them and lead to a backlash effect – something women seek to avoid by choosing not to self-promote.

Unequal attitudes

Interestingly, the Wundamail report suggests that 84pc of women have previously feigned agreement with someone’s opinion “purely to avoid confrontation”. On the other hand, more than half of men surveyed described themselves as “confrontational within reason”, with a further quarter claiming that they actively “relish confrontation”.

This reeks of societal pressure around how women are expected to behave in work and is a far bigger and more complex issue than simply assuming women aren’t confident enough.

In a Harvard Business Review study, women were shown to be very aware of the backlash effect of self-promotion. Despite knowing that being less visible would hurt their odds of promotion, they also felt that violating ‘feminine norms’ and acting assertively could leave them worse off and so turned away from the spotlight.

The onus should not be on women

So, is imposter syndrome really a myth? No. Does it affect women more than men? Not necessarily. Is it to blame for a lack of women at senior levels? That appears to be far too simple an answer, and one that puts the onus on women to fix the problem.

It’s far easier for leaders, CEOs and organisations facing a gender gap problem to advise women to be more confident, rather than re-evaluate how women are actually recognised, rewarded and supported.

As psychology professor Jessi L Smith said in The Atlantic: “The focus on the confidence gap is troubling as it suggests something is wrong with women, and that we need to ‘fix’ them and have them act more like men.”

Employers looking to improve the working environment for women and reduce their own gender gap should look to highlight these issues through managerial training and employee workshops. Then, rewards and recognition should become more transparent and it should take into consideration the invisible work that women are often expected take on.

Solving the gender gap is no simple task and will require buy-in and efforts from every echelon of society. But while imposter syndrome itself isn’t a myth, it’s not the reason women aren’t getting promoted. If all women had to do to solve the gender gap problem was to act more confident, there’s a good chance it would have been fixed by now.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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