Kill the Imposter: How Imposter Syndrome Affects Black Women in the Workplace

In my processes of negotiations class, we have discussed how power and identity factor into negotiations specifically in terms of race and gender. As a black woman caught in the crossfires of racial and gender biases, I took great interest in this analysis and the conscious or subconscious ways in which women of color are treated unequally in their industries. How can a woman successfully negotiate for a higher salary if her efforts are undervalued? Worse yet, how can she successfully negotiate if she undervalues herself and feels like an imposter?

According to the Women in the Workplace 2018 study conducted by McKinsey & Company, organizations are talking the talk but not walking the walk. Even though they claim to be committed to gender diversity, there is still massive underrepresentation. Only one in five C-suite leaders is a woman and one in twenty-five a woman of color. Women are hired at much lower rates than men for entry-level positions even though they earn more bachelor’s degrees. Subsequently, they are less likely to be promoted to managerial roles than men. [1]

Women in the Workplace 2018 McKinsey & Company

Some could argue that this divide is caused by women not ‘putting themselves out there’ but research shows otherwise. Women are negotiating for higher salaries at the same rate as men, but they are less likely to be promoted. Black women in particular express interest in advancing their careers but are promoted and paid less for equivalent work.[2] I believe that this is where the doubt creeps in and the self-fulfilling prophecy is established. Society is designed to hinder women’s access to these positions. This is then internalized and can manifest as women believing they do not have the right to take up space.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological state of mind in which one doubts their abilities despite evidence of competency. In short, they feel like a fraud. Interestingly enough, this term was coined because of women! Clinical psychologists coined it in the 70s after they observed that many high achieving career women felt inadequate and attributed their academic and professional accomplishments to luck.[3] Women’s experiences in the workplace can lead to imposter syndrome and this could be for a number of reasons.

First of all, when women are constantly reminded that their work does not deserve the same compensation as men, the message they receive is that their work is worth less. Even if they are resilient and decide to reject this message, they will always have an understanding that the odds are stacked against them if they ask for better compensation. Additionally, women often stick out like a sore thumb in male-dominated spaces so they may feel the need to become invisible and undisruptive by not demanding more. For instance, black women already experience microaggressions for wearing certain hairstyles (re: The Crown Act) and this treatment could deter them from further rocking the boat by making requests that benefit them. A direct consequence would be the fact that they earn only 63 cents to the white man’s dollar. Finally, if you work in a space where nobody else looks like you, it is easy to start to feel like you do not belong there. 

As stated by the experts, the best way for women to negotiate for higher pay is to conquer the likeability-competence conundrum i.e. the belief that the more competent women are the less likable they are. They have recommended that women frame their demands in more appealing and likable ways. For example, when a woman asks for a promotion, she should make it clear that she is not just doing it for herself but for the good of the group. She can also use her mentor as an excuse by saying the request was recommended to her by her mentor.[4] As helpful as these suggestions can be, they are more affirmative than transformative. It is ironic that women have to contort themselves to fix a problem they did not create. This dilemma is representative of this tweet and the frustrated responses it elicited.

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We need to go beyond women doing the work. The onus should be on the companies doing the hiring and promoting. More company policies should be put in place to support women rightfully claiming their places at the top. There should be more wage transparency and hiring managers should be trained on how to identify and check their implicit biases. Standards should be set for the salary negotiation process for employees across the board to avoid discrimination based on gender and race.

The psychology behind imposter syndrome is simple: thoughts of unworthiness in the face of competence; thoughts induced by discrimination and structural inequality. So, to women everywhere, I say kill your imposter because it is not real. What is real is your value and your accomplishments. You are where you are because you earned it not because you got lucky. In fact, the world is lucky to have you.

Written by: Princess Anene-Maidoh MALD F22

[1] “Women in the Workplace,” Lean In, 2018,

[2] Ibid

[3] Andrea Robinson, “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome,”, November 2017,

[4] Stacy Heen Lennon, “The Woman as Negotiator,” Medium (Medium, January 3, 2016),