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How can women overcome imposter syndrome in the workplace?

I work in book publishing, an industry known for its proclivity of female predominance amongst its demographics.

For this reason it is often assumed to be an industry infused with feminism and feel-good meeting rooms; above oppression, relieved of the patriarchy. In fact, the workforce generally is now occupied by a majority of women; there has been in the United States, it seems, a permanent shift.

But when you look closer, it is obvious that most of the women in the publishing industry still operate in non-senior positions; that when they do rise up, it is by sacrificing a personal life, and that it is not unusual for them to experience anything from mansplaining to sexual harassment — just like women might expect in any other industry.

Three years ago, I attended a prestigious postgraduate publishing program in New York City, a few weeks after I finished college. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about getting a job, how to network, or even what industry I wanted to enter. This meant shaking hands, sweating palms, and torn heels after walking in heels down 34th Street, too late or too early for an interview.

I was hopeless, I believed. I was sending out resumes that made me seem much more dedicated and experienced. I loved books, yes, but I wanted to write them, not edit them. I was putting off graduate school, recovering from a period of depression post-graduation (and post-bad break-up), and when I looked back at my years in high school and college I perceived only my privileged laziness (even during the few internships that I did have), rather than an impressive montage of summer jobs.

When I was offered a job before my publishing program was even over, I felt that I had succeeded in fooling a manager and a company into thinking I would be any good at marketing academic books, and I felt conflicted about this. It did not occur to me to give any credit to myself for my professional attitude, my intelligence, nor my eligibility.

In short, I acted as society expects women, particularly women from minority backgrounds, to do: I acted demure, and I acted grateful.

It was only about a year later, when I finally began to get the hang of things, that I was brave enough to reach for more; I applied and was accepted for a promotion, founded the office’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and began to form lasting connections in the workplace.

I faked it until I made it, I made true what I believed was a facade I hid behind: that I was good at my job, and that I was capable of doing even more.

This “imposter syndrome”, as I was eventually told I was experiencing, permeates the workplace for an exceptionally high number of women and members of social minorities. As of recent months, you can read about research on the experience across fields and industries, and about how it has specifically affected my own field, academic publishing.

And you can learn about what we can do to provide more inclusive, encouraging environments for the historically underrepresented. When I began my career, I was one of the few women of color on my floor and in my department. But I received significant mentorship from two women I have been lucky enough to call my boss, and ongoing support with diversity and inclusion initiatives I feared would flounder. Diversity is essential when hiring, but mentorship is necessary for retention; to encourage women to thrive and pursue their goals, and to know that their economic worth is no less than a man’s, despite the internal conditioning that tells women to prove themselves, and men that they will do just fine.

A few weeks ago, I returned to my publishing program as a guest panelist. After the discussion was over I was approached by several female students, many of whom who thanked me for saying something I thought everyone but me already knew: “Know your worth — when you do get a job, it’ll be because you earned it, and you’re there for a reason."


Celine Aenlle-Rocha is a writer and publishing professional from Miami and Los Angeles, currently residing in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. She has degrees in English, Spanish and creative writing from Kenyon College, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing at Columbia University.

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