I remember dreading meetings, getting a queasy stomach and not speaking confidently. It always seemed like my ideas fell flat, even those that were later praised when someone else presented them as their own.
A senior-level friend deep in digital analytics, whose job was so complicated I can’t explain what she did, bounced from one firm to another, never feeling comfortable with the mostly white men who couldn’t seem to grasp that she was their equal. Over time, she began to doubt her abilities.
We all know that feeling. You’re just as smart as, if not smarter than, everyone else in the room, yet you feel so unsure of yourself.
The workplace can be rough for us. It’s not surprising that so many Black women suffer from “impostor syndrome,” the feeling of being a fraud or a fake and not quite good enough to do the job. “Oftentimes, these feelings override the evidence of success,” says Devay Campbell, a career coach and author of The Best Job Interview Advice Book.
Casey Kelley, a former marketing executive, remembers working at the headquarters of a major retailer when there were only four Black people on her team. “We all had [advanced] degrees and the person I reported to didn’t even go to college, yet I had to prove I had a reason to be there,” says Kelley, 46, of Jacksonville, Fla.
Another sister, Viola Llewellyn, was the only Black female sales executive in the white-male-dominated tech companies where she worked in the early 1990s. “Benchmarks for me were higher than for others in similar roles. Even when I was doing well, I felt as if it was a total charade and that it was a fluke,” says Llewellyn, 52, of Suitland, Md.
When you feel like the bar is raised higher for you and you have to chase something you can’t catch, that’s enough to give you an inferiority complex.
“Women are facing road blocks to their success,” says Campbell, who believes Black women are more susceptible to impostor syndrome because we often deal with micro-aggressions in the workplace that others don’t. “If the people around you treat you in a way that dismisses you, or makes you feel unworthy, it’s possible for the negativity to stick and show up when you should be celebrating.”
But feelings of inferiority don’t have to define us. We can learn from sisters who found ways to take their power back.
For Kelley, the cure to impostor syndrome was embracing her authentic self. She thought about all the skills she brought to the table that her colleagues didn’t. “No one else could do my job or understood it,” she says. That epiphany gave her the courage to speak up more. “I stopped caring about judgment. Instead, it was like, ‘let me educate you.’”
Campbell has some advice for sisters struggling with impostor syndrome:
- Acknowledge that you have the skills to be successful without “luck.”
- Write down the path you followed to achieve a goal. Seeing it in writing may help you recognize your talents.
- Watch your back. Hang with those that speak positively to and about you.
- Talk to yourself like you would with one of your girls. If you would congratulate her on a job well done, speak to yourself that way.
If none of that works, take a cue from Michelle Obama about the moment she learned to handle impostor syndrome. “When you’re at the table and you realize [about someone else present], ‘ Oh, you are a fool!’ And I’m worried about raising my hand? I want to challenge us as women to speak up” when we’re at the table in meetings. “Because if we don’t speak up, our voices are never involved in the process of problem solving, and we don’t get to the right answers.”