Jordan has always been passionate about finance and worked hard to earn her finance MBA degree with top honors. She was thrilled when offered a position at one of the most prestigious financial firms in New York City and felt proud to represent her African American community in such a respected industry.
On her first day of work, her new colleagues excitedly welcomed her and Jordan felt a sense of belonging. However, this feeling was short-lived. As the only black female on her team, Jordan was constantly targeted with microaggressions. Her colleagues often made insensitive comments, such as assuming that she was the diversity hire or implying that she was only there to fill a quota.
Initially, Jordan brushed off these comments and actions. However, over time, she began to feel the effects. She was constantly scrutinized and worked twice as hard to prove herself. Her confidence decreased and it became harder to assert herself in meetings.
When she finally mustered the courage to speak up about her experience, Jordan expressed her concerns to the director. However, instead of taking her complaints seriously, her director dismissed them as a case of “imposter syndrome.”
Jordan was shocked and hurt by this response. She worked hard to earn her place in the company and knew she could do her job well. The microaggressions were not a figment of her imagination but real discrimination that affected her mental health and job performance. Learn more about the Macro Effects of Microagressions.
Being told that she had imposter syndrome only added to her existing self-doubt. It made her question whether the concerns were valid and whether she really belonged in her role. Rather than addressing the inequities, Jordan’s director resorted to gaslighting her with a syndrome theory. This was a mistake that could put Jordan and the organization at risk. Learn how to be a good leader with Bright Places Leadership Education Programs.
The experience of being told she had imposter syndrome damaged Jordan’s confidence and self-esteem. She was being held to a different standard than her white colleagues, who were not experiencing the same microaggressions or being dismissed in the same way.
It is true that the term “imposter syndrome” has been widely used to describe the feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt experienced by many individuals in the workplace, especially women and people of color. But does this term accurately capture the root causes of Jordan’s reactions?
The Research Says
One of the most common mental health conditions associated with traumatic experiences is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in individuals who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as sexual assault, physical violence, or combat. Symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression, and avoidance behavior.
While PTSD is often associated with combat veterans, it can also affect individuals who have experienced trauma in other contexts, including the workplace. For example, women, like Jordan, who have experienced harassment or discrimination at work, may develop symptoms of PTSD, such as anxiety and avoidance behavior, which can impact their ability to work effectively and advance in their careers.
Given the prevalence of workplace discrimination and harassment, it is important for employers and colleagues to be aware of the impact of these experiences on mental health and well-being. Instead of dismissing the feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt experienced by women and people of color as imposter syndrome, it is important to acknowledge the reality of their experiences and work to create a more inclusive and supportive workplace environment.
The Harvard Business Review recently published an article titled “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” which argues that the term “imposter syndrome” is problematic because it implies that the feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt are the result of an individual’s personal shortcomings, rather than the result of external factors such as discrimination and bias. The article calls for a shift in focus from individual-level interventions to address imposter syndrome to systemic-level interventions that address the root causes of workplace discrimination and harassment.
Too many experiences of women and people of color in the workplace are shaped by systemic discrimination and bias and profoundly impact mental health and well-being. Let’s call it out for what it is, stop labeling this Imposter Syndrome, acknowledge these PTSD-inducing experiences, and work to create a more inclusive and supportive workplace environment. Addressing workplace trauma’s root causes and promoting all employees’ mental health and well-being is the only way we ensure Jordan never has this experience again.
The Matter of Facts
The trauma that women and people of color experience in the workplace include:
These experiences can profoundly impact an individual’s mental health and well-being and lead to symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.
Pew Research Center study on gender discrimination in the workplace.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report on workplace harassment and discrimination.
National Women’s Law Center report on multiple forms of discrimination experienced by women of color.
Study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology on discrimination and mental health outcomes.