female with imposter syndrome

Is imposter syndrome more common in female creatives?

Imposter syndrome – the doubt around accomplishments and persistent fear of being exposed as fraud – is common in the creative industry. It’s often linked to perfectionism, and that’s regularly perceived as a female trait.

So, is it fair to assume only female designers get imposter syndrome?

Imposter phenomenon

The term ‘Imposter phenomenon’ is relatively new (by psychology standards). It was first used in 1978 by American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their study focused on high-achieving women. (Interestingly, they used phenomenon – it was Harvard Business Review who changed the phrase to ‘syndrome’ in later article about the study.)

The Clance and Imes conversation is as relevant today as it was then. It only takes a quick dive into Mrs Google to see how prevalent imposter syndrome is, and it’s not just creatives who feel like fraudsters. It’s rampant throughout every career and every industry sector.  I’ve read about imposter feelings from best-selling authors, actors, Nobel peace prize recipients and even Albert Einstein.

So, is imposter syndrome more common in females?

It’s debatable.

Psychology Today says yes. They add: instead of acknowledging their capabilities and efforts, females often attribute accomplishments to external or transient causes, such as luck, good timing, or effort that they cannot regularly expend.

WebMD – a high ranking US medical site says no. While agreeing Imes and Clance found imposter syndrome prevalent in high-achieving professional women, WebMD say more recently experts have found it is common among both males and females in many lines of work.

The CEO magazine says yes, imposter syndrome is more prevalent in women and minorities. Just last month they reported ‘for many women, feeling like an imposter is linked to identity threat. It is more prevalent in contexts that are inhospitable to women, and where gender stereotypes suggest that women don’t fit, or don’t have the same capabilities as men’.

I could go on or you can just trust me there is much debate and difference of opinion.

Common to every study is the knowledge that ‘feeling’ like an imposter is unproductive

Is imposter syndrome more common in creatives?

Many studies found the common element for those with imposter syndrome is the need to compare themself to others.

That’s interesting because a creative’s business model (trading creativity for money) is based on making comparisons.
We build our career comparing our folios to others.
Selling our services via websites and Instagram actively encourages clients to compare our product to others.
And our work is often focused at pitching one client’s product against another.
Added to that designers have a continual pressure to generate new creative work.

So, yes, it is arguable imposter syndrome is more common in creatives.

How to handle imposter syndrome

Embrace it

It’s part of who we are.
Part of our industry.
Part of our onlyness.

Knowing that makes it impossible to feel like you’re the only one. Lean into it, learn by it and embrace the fear.

Understand it’s OK not knowing everything

Natalie Portman – the Hollywood actress – is a Harvard alumni. Addressing graduates, she suggested there are great benefits to being the ‘newbie’. She says, when you are not steeped in the conventional wisdom of a given profession, you can ask questions that haven’t been asked before or approach problems in ways others haven’t thought of.

That works for me. Some of the best ideas in brainstorming come from those with less baggage. Remember the article we wrote about pre-mortems? Including people outside the core project team in a pre-project meeting can help spot challenges that may live outside your skillset. *Brilliant*.

So next time you’re feeling like an imposter, take comfort in knowing you might have the most critical perspective of all.

Switch your thinking

Switch thinking about your performance to what can be learnt from the experience. Thinking about performance is like fuel on a fire for those of us with imposter syndrome.

Try to forget about performance (and all the possible permutations and combinations of inadequacy and or mistakes) and think more about what you can learn from the experience. Psychologist Carol Dweck (whose work bridges developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology) calls it switching from a “growth” mindset, rather than a “fixed” mindset. That could work.

It’s not all about you

Those of us who experience impostor syndrome often feel like we’re the only ones feeling this way, but reality is very different. According to a recent US survey by Vantage Hill Partners published in HBR, being found incompetent is the number one fear of executives worldwide.

So if you’re feeling like an impostor, chances are that others in your situation feel the exact same way. It’s almost ‘normal’.

Finally, get out of your head into reality.

We live so much in our imagination, sometimes we just need to return to a solid footing of reality.

Don’t rely on others, create your own fanclub.
Save congratulatory emails praising your work.
Write down a list of accomplishments that make you proud.
Keep a ‘you’re great’ file on hand to review when you feel like a fraud.


Imposter syndrome is everywhere and part of the mindset of many, many people.

At best it reminds us to take stock of our knowledge and our skills, and why we deserve our space.
At worst it is paralysing.
Either way rest assured; it is not uncommon.

If you do feel either hinder your wellbeing, do talk to someone, do get help.

And keep in mind that actual frauds don’t have imposter syndrome. The very fact that you have imposter syndrome shows that you’re not an imposter. That’s a good thing 😉


Want to continue the discussion? Email Carol.


Carol Mackay

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About Carol

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, Carol pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council she uses her experience, and research, to help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement  paid gigs with mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

In 2018 Carol co-founded the Clear Communication Awards, and the Business of Design Week. Both will be run in 2019

An archive of her design work at mbdesign.com.au.
Her current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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