It’s Not You, It’s Them: Gaslighting and the Imposter Syndrome Among Women at Work

Women are more likely than men to feel like imposters at work. “Imposter syndrome” is a term used to describe the feeling that one might not really be qualified for their position, that they obtained their position due to some quirk of fate rather than their own competence, that they actually aren’t skilled enough to do the work, and that someday everyone might find out that they should not have the position. Imposter syndrome is more common among women than men, especially after obtaining a prestigious job offer or promotion.

Fixing this problem is often discussed in the context of women needing to change, that women need to be more self-confident and take more ownership of their accomplishments. This is the basis of numerous workshops and self-help books for women, and even of programs promoting positive development among girls.

But what if the problem doesn’t lie in women? What if, instead, these women have been given consistent, but inaccurate, negative feedback about their work, their relationships with colleagues and supervisees, and their ability to balance work and home? If women consistently receive this feedback, is it really surprising that they could come to doubt their abilities and competence?

Perceptions of Men and Women at Work

Decades of studies indicate that women are perceived less positively than men at work, even when their behavior and accomplishments are similar. For example, when application materials for a manager’s position are paired with a woman’s name, the candidate is viewed as less hirable than when the materials are paired with a man’s name (Phelan et al., 2008), and managers perceive women as more likely than men to “derail” or stop progressing up the career ladder, even when their performance evaluations are just as positive (Bono et al., 2017). As another example, participants were asked to rate characteristics (e.g., emotional traits) that were typical among men, women, and successful managers (Fischbach et al., 2015). The characteristics that people perceive to be typical of successful managers are more similar to those that they see as typical of men than of women. In other words, when new employees walk in the door, they are more likely to be perceived as management material if they are men than women.

Not only are women seen as less competent at work, but they also are seen as less likable, especially when they are very good at their work. Several studies have tested this idea by describing an employee or manager as especially competent, without mentioning anything about interpersonal skills, and then pairing the description with either a man’s name or a woman’s name. For example, one study described a “stellar performer” whose performance was in the top 5 percent of employees at the same level (Heilman et al., 2007). Participants rated the employee in terms of how likeable the person seemed and also how hostile the person seemed (i.e., whether they seemed abrasive, conniving, selfish, pushy, and untrustworthy). The employee was seen as less likable and more hostile when paired with a woman’s name than a man’s name. This is really noteworthy given that not only was the description identical when paired with a man’s or a woman’s name, but there was also nothing in the description to suggest the person was dislikable or hostile. Except that she was competent.

Finally, although dads are more involved in their children’s lives than they once were, only women are seen as slacking on the job when they become parents. Whereas men are seen as more mature and committed to their jobs after becoming parents, women are seen as less committed and less promotable (Budig, 2014; Fuegen et al., 2004). There are economic consequences as well. There is a well-documented “fatherhood bonus” and “motherhood penalty,” such that men’s salaries tend to increase and women’s salaries tend to decrease after becoming parents; this happens even when men and women are performing similarly (e.g., working the same number of hours).

Gaslighting at Work

Our thoughts fuel our behaviors. When we think that someone is not competent, not likeable, or not able to balance their home life with work, that is how we treat them. And all of the evidence about perceptions of men and women at work suggests that even when women and men achieve and behave similarly, women are seen as worse employees.

What are the consequences for women of being treated this way? An initial reaction may be anger. However, from early childhood, most girls are taught that anger is not an appropriate emotion to feel or express. Another natural reaction is confusion as to why they are perceived and treated more poorly than colleagues who are performing similarly. However, checking in with supervisors about this is not helpful if they hold these gender-linked biases. In fact, it is not uncommon for supervisors in this scenario to suggest various trainings or programs aimed at improving skills, communication, etc., further implying that the problem lies within the women themselves.

However, if the problem lies in the perceivers and not the women, then the treatment of women is, in effect, gaslighting. The idea of gaslighting has received a lot of attention recently and actually stems from a play and movie in the 1930s/1940s titled “Gaslight.” In this play/movie, a woman’s husband tries to convince her that she is losing her grip on her sanity to explain away clues that he is searching the house for hidden jewels to steal. One clue was that when he turned on the gaslights to search in the attic, the lights in the rest of the house dimmed. However, he used denial, manipulation, and misdirection to convince her that the lights were not actually dimming (and the other clues were not real either), but instead all in her imagination.

Typically, we think of gaslighting as something done intentionally by a single individual, such as in this example. However, gaslighting also can be unintentional. If women are perceived and treated more poorly than men at work due to deeply ingrained and often unconscious societal beliefs, it is natural for them to begin to question their own perceptions and competence and whether they have what it takes to do the job.

The Irony of Gaslighting and Imposter Syndrome

Putting all of the pieces together, an irony becomes apparent. Due to societal beliefs, women are perceived and treated more poorly at work than similarly-performing men. Over time, many of these women internalize this feedback and begin to question their own competence. They may even develop imposter syndrome and feel like they were never competent enough for their position. At which point, colleagues, supervisors, friends, and family tell them that they just need to be more self-confident.

But, in many cases, the underlying problem was never with the women themselves, but with others’ perceptions. Therefore, no amount of additional training or workshops aimed at bolstering self-confidence will solve the problem. Because you are not paranoid if it is really happening.

Instead, rather than sweeping these issues under the rug, we need to shine a spotlight on the gender biases that still exist and the problems they cause. Until we acknowledge and attempt to address the unconscious biases that most of us (both men and women) still hold as products of our society, equality in the workplace will remain a pipe dream.

Copyright, Amanda J. Rose, first published in Psychology Today, June 15, 2019

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