Feb. 12, 2020

Impostor Syndrome as a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Issue

The UCalgary Psychology Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Blog


Dr. Cara MacInnis

Imposturous feelings are common in academic settings. That is, many students fail to internalize their successes, feel that they are less capable than they actually are, and have strong feelings of self-doubt and fraudulence. These feelings are associated with negative mental health outcomes and — although it is typically bright and highly competent students who experience imposturous feelings — they are associated with poorer academic success

Students who are underrepresented in postsecondary education experience imposturous feelings more intensely, including ethnic minority students, women in STEM fields, or students from lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. This is one more barrier to success for underrepresented students. 

We recently sought to uncover why some underrepresented university students (in particular, students considering themselves relatively lower in SES) experience heightened imposturous feelings. We found that students who considered themselves lower in SES reported lower feelings of belongingness at university, which went on to predict heightened imposturous feelings. These students, relative to students considering themselves relatively higher in SES, felt less like they fit in, felt less welcome, and felt less enthusiastic to be at university. These feelings promoted imposturous feelings in the students, such as feeling that their success is the result of some sort of error or luck, discounting their successes, or feeling like they are fooling others into thinking they are more competent than they actually are.  

Recognizing the deleterious outcomes of imposturous feelings among university students, many postsecondary institutions have established programs to reduce these feelings, often targeted at those from underrepresented groups. Our research suggests that increasing a sense of belongingness may be an important component to incorporate into such programs. It is critical to foster a sense of belongingness and reduce imposturous feelings to facilitate student success. 

Read More:

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. 10.1037/h0086006

Austin, C. C., Clark, E. M., Ross, M. J., & Taylor, M. J. (2009). Impostorism as a Mediator Between Survivor Guilt and Depression in a Sample of African American College Students. College Student Journal, 43(4), 1094–1109

Bernard, N. S., Dollinger, S. J., & Ramaniah, N. V. (2002). Applying the Big Five Personality Factors to the Impostor Phenomenon. Journal of Personality Assessment, 78(2), 321–333. 10.1207/S15327752JPA7802_07

Chrisman, S. M., Pieper, W. A., Clance, P. R., Holland, C. L., & Glickauf-Hughes, C. (1995). Validation of the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(3), 456–467. 10.1207/s15327752jpa6503_6

Cokley, K., Smith, L., Bernard, D., Hurst, A., Jackson, S., Stone, S., … Roberts, D. (2017). Impostor feelings as a moderator and mediator of the relationship between perceived discrimination and mental health among racial/ethnic minority college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(2), 141–154. 10.1037/cou0000198 

Harvey, J. C., & Katz, C. (1985). If I’m so successful, why do I feel like a fake?: The impostor phenomenon. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

McGregor, L. N., Gee, D. E., & Posey, K. E. (2008). I feel like a fraud and it depresses me: The relation between the imposter phenomenon and depression. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 36(1), 43–48. 10.2224/sbp.2008.36.1.43

Clance, P. R. (1985). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Pub Ltd.

Cokley, K., Awad, G., Smith, L., Jackson, S., Awosogba, O., Hurst, A., … Roberts, D. (2015). The Roles of Gender Stigma Consciousness, Impostor Phenomenon and Academic Self-Concept in the Academic Outcomes of Women and Men. Sex Roles, 73(9-10), 414–426. 10.1007/s11199-015-0516-7

Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A., & Martinez, M. (2013). An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 41(2), 82–95. 10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x

Peteet, B. J., LaTrice, M., & Weekes, J. C. (2015). Predictors of Imposter Phenomenon among Talented Ethnic Minority Undergraduate Students. The Journal of Negro Education, 84(2), 175. 10.7709/jnegroeducation.84.2.0175

Weissmann, E. (2015). Female STEM students cite isolation, lack of role models. The Brown Daily Herald. Retrieved from http://www.browndailyherald.com/2015/04/23/female-stemstudents-cite-isolation-lack-of-role-models/

MacInnis, C.C., Nguyen, P., Buliga, E., & Boyce, M.A. (2019). Cross-Socioeconomic Class Friendships Can Exacerbate Imposturous Feelings Among Lower-SES Students. Journal of College Student Development 60(5), 595-611. doi:10.1353/csd.2019.0056.

Parkman, A. (2016). The Imposter Phenomenon in Higher Education : Incidence and Impact. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 16(1), 51–61.

This post first appeared on Academic Outliers and has been republished with permission.