I vividly remember as I journeyed into the "leaders" space that inner voice that occasionally whispered: "You're not meant to be here." Self-doubt was never far as a black female leader – no matter how hard I worked or what I achieved.
This constant companion, is a shared experience for those of us from marginalised groups, especially as we navigate through spaces centred on privileged identities. Even when you know you've earned your seat at the table on merit and sheer grit, there's still that lingering feeling you've slipped through the cracks. Happily, I've come to realise it's nothing out of the ordinary, especially when presented with new challenges.
Identified by two clinical psychologists back in the day as "imposter syndrome" – a phenomenon prevalent amongst high achieving women. It appeared in psychology studies in the 1970s meaning although it's now considered as even more present in women intersected within another marginalised group such as multi ethnicity or class, its framing likely failed to consider impacts of bias and prejudice towards those groups. It also overly centres the "problem" on the individual.
I can't help but agree with those who argue that this is not just an individual issue – we're often stuck operating in institutional cultures not built for us. Is feeling like an outsider really a syndrome? I would say not. The problem then lies with marginalising systems, not marginalised people.
Studies show up to 80% of black working women report dealing with self-doubt, compared to fewer than 40% of white male peers (Tulshyan & Burey, 2022). With less than a handful of black female chief executives leading Fortune 500 companies (Zarya, 2022), leadership standards clearly still have a way to go.
Of course, that feeling of self-doubt hits hard for marginalised people pushing against assumptions, stereotypes and concrete barriers unfairly obstructing our progression. Calling it a personal "syndrome" would suggest those who feel "imposterish" are somehow abnormal. I've come to realise that nagging self-consciousness does not reflect some personal failing. More often, it mirrors unreceptive environments that force us to constantly prove ourselves worthy for the same leadership roles more dominant groups access easily.
So, how to deal with imposter syndrome:
It's not a weakness
Don't ignore if your doubts feel rooted in reality – if you feel you slipped through systemic cracks. Recognise this isn't weakness but natural response to environments adapting to diversity. Our ambition, resilience and vision can inspire change. Executives must also recognise your capacity and worth – not expect you to prove it alone. Prioritising mental wellbeing in the workplace matters just as much as skills performance, if not more. The answer lies not in fixing "us" but in transforming those environments by embedding diversity, equity and inclusion into their DNA.
Find your allies
Change takes time as we advocate for progress. Breathe. Identify allies. Create peer support groups to build confidence. I've come across self-affirming mood boards – visible proofs of validation – refer back when doubting earned leadership.
As a black woman I actively challenge the myth. Over time I've learned to relax into the belief in myself, be confident in what I know and not to put pressure on myself if I don't. If self-doubt presents itself, I confidently channel it – a positive energy, focused on progress. I know exactly where I belong as a leader – it's on organisations to catch up and make that belonging possible. My talents can help workplaces evolve rather than forcing me to conform to limits.
Will doubts ever creep in? Probably – I'm not perfect. No one is. And that's okay. But I refuse to accept this as my personal "syndrome" that is anything other than normal, left to solve alone. Together, we can dismantle barriers, transform environments hindering diversity in leadership and foster the inclusive cultures we know are possible.
Here are some supporting groups to check out: Bloom Network UK; Joinourtable; Mefa and Wacl.
Elizabeth Anyaegbuna is co-founder of Sixteenbynine