Pressin' On: Leadership From the Black Female Imposter's Perspective

Pressin' On: Leadership From the Black Female Imposter's Perspective

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-3827-5.ch002
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Through leadership experiences that span a 20+ year career in higher education, one Black female attempts to demonstrate how Black women who suffer from imposter syndrome experience leadership and overcome through the power of resilience. Supported by research, the implications from these stories highlight the ever-present hardships, and resiliency, that enable Black women in leadership roles to “press on,” or persevere, despite the syndrome and the professional community that threatens to shut them down. These stories reflect the true inequity that Black women face specifically when they attempt to lead in higher education settings and suggest changes that can be made to change the leadership landscape for Black women.
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Black women have been making history in leadership for years. Recent high-profile occurrences of black women in leadership roles include Keesha Lance Bottoms, former mayor of Atlanta, GA; First Lady Michelle Obama; and Stacy Abrams, grassroots organizer and attorney, to name just a few. Two more recent and historical occurrences include the election of the country's first black female Supreme Court Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and the country's first black female Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris. Although these examples and more exist, black women in leadership encounter many internal and external obstacles; one internal obstacle is imposter syndrome (Palmer, 2021). Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes (1978) introduced imposter syndrome with their original study, which examined the concept of imposter syndrome among high-achieving women. While Clance and Imes focused on "high achieving women," other research suggests that as many as more than 80% of people in general grapple with ideas that they are a "fraud" and have, by chance, luck, and effort, but not ability, been able to accomplish tasks (Bravata et al., 2020). More recently, Camara et al. (2022) defined the "Impostor Phenomenon (IP) as the inability to internalize success and a tendency to attribute success to external causes." Those suffering from imposter syndrome believe their achievements have been accomplished based on "luck", as the imposter does not believe she is skilled enough to accomplish professional tasks without the benefit of luck. She is, however, skilled enough to "fool" those around her. The imposter's biggest concern is being discovered as an imposter who lacks the skills necessary to succeed (Clance & Imes, 1978). Moreover, while most leaders struggle with imposter syndrome at times, research shows that people of color experience imposter syndrome at a higher rate than white people (Nance-Nash, 2020). Furthermore, "the organizational and systematic hardship experienced by women is even more extreme for women of color who pursue, attain and retain leadership positions, particularly African American women" (Witherspoon-Robinson, 2013). These external, organizational, and systematic conditions reinforce imposter syndrome and create a leadership quandary that is specific to black females in leadership.

Notably, black women seek out leadership roles more frequently than white women, despite the many difficulties that litter the leadership roles for black women and the fact that they suffer from imposter syndrome at a higher rate than white women (Nance-Nash, 2020). If the experiences are so traumatic, why do black women continue to pursue leadership? Black women continue to pursue leadership, hoping to change the trajectory for those like them. According to an IBV Research Brief (2021) entitled, Nurturing Black Women Leaders, black women are motivated to lead to equip others within their influence with the capacity to do so. The desire to make a difference for those around her seems to outweigh the impact of the difficulties of leadership and the effects of imposter syndrome on black women in leadership roles.

In educational settings, in particular, black females are plunged into grueling experiences where they are different, underrepresented, and undermined, as research shows that in all institutions of education, including post-secondary, minority representation is disproportionately low and even lower for black women (Ahmed et al., 2020). Under these circumstances, even a sense of belonging is denied the black female leader. She is isolated from those who look like her and ignored by those who do not. African-American women executives, in general, are often placed in positions where they are the only ones of their race and gender; thus, African-American women executives are often isolated in their roles. As the statistics reveal, African-American women executives are a minority in executive positions, which often results in few to no peers of their race and gender (Beckwith et al., 2016).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Leadership: Any role in any situation, formal or informal, that requires a person to take on the primary responsibility of providing direction for something or someone.

Imposter syndrome: A mental condition in which the victim is convinced that she has no skill beyond that of weaving a web of professional deception through luck and happenstance, upon which she has been able to make professional strides.

Organizational Barriers to Equity: Any action interwoven within the common processes and practices of an organization that prevents progress toward an equitable workplace for any person.

Resilience: The ability to stand despite difficult circumstances.

Black Female Imposter: A Black female who impersonates another with the intent of deception.

Equity: The condition that exists when everyone in a given situation is afforded what they need to succeed.

Press: To steadily push forward through a situation in the face of difficult circumstances.

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