The Superwoman Syndrome, Even Harder than it Looks …
By: Dr. Helen Ofosu
The Superwoman Syndrome, Even Harder than it Looks …
Recently, I was asked to speak at an International Women’s Day event that was being organized by Sigma Beta Phi Sorority. I was intrigued since I have not been close to ‘Greek Life’ … especially in Canada … and their topic ‘the Superwoman Syndrome’ added another level of fascination.
I had an idea in my head about the Superwoman Syndrome, but I was curious to know if my perception matched reality. Here’s the official definition that Sigma Beta Phi provided:
“The superwoman syndrome is the perception that one must be perfect in all things: perfect on the job, at home, in one’s body image, in one’s relationships, etc. and it is exacerbated by other social pressures.”
Sigma Beta Phi asked me to address how I have combatted the superwoman syndrome and/or any implications for mental health, particularly among women of colour or other underrepresented groups (e.g., women with disabilities, Indigenous women, women in the LGBTQ community, etc.). In addition, they said it would be helpful if I could also provide insight into how external influences can either help or hinder the mental health of these types of women. That’s a tall order for an 8 – 10-minute talk as part of a panel discussion, but, it was interesting and timely.
How Do I Combat the Superwoman Syndrome?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been preoccupied with the demands of my personal and professional life. I hadn’t really thought about the Superwoman Syndrome explicitly until this event. But there’s no doubt that I’ve felt its pressure over the years. I’d argue that in addition to getting closer to the top of my game professionally, as a woman of colour, there have been a few extra layers of difficulty; I’ll address three of them.
Layer #1: The Superwoman Syndrome while Covering at Work
According to a report published by Deloitte, the majority of certain populations in the workplace actively cover up aspects of their identities that they believe are unwelcome and/or stigmatized. In other words, they are intentionally downplaying who they are. For example,
“… women are doing it more, LGBT people are doing it more, people of colour are doing it more. And the study also shows that white men cover to a degree as well — almost 50% of the men in their study. They have a political affiliation that’s unlike their peers, or they have a disability, or they are married to a woman of colour.”
This means that a lot of mental and creative energy is being diverted into covering at work instead of doing one’s actual work because of real or perceived workplace expectations.
Layer #2: The Superwoman Syndrome while being the One and Only
In January 2019, I came across a terrific article published on the McKinsey & Company website. The authors point out that often when we’re the ‘only one’ … a woman in an all-male environment, the only person of colour, the only LGBTQ person, or whatever … “these experiences brought with them anxiety, pressure, and a sense of being on the spot: if we said or did the wrong thing, stereotypes would get reinforced or prejudices confirmed. Other people, we recognize, experience far worse.”
They referenced a study of 64,000 employees and 279 companies in North America:
- For women, being an “only” in the workplace is endemic
- 20% said they were often the only person of their gender in the room or one of very few
- For women of colour, that number rose to 45%
- For men, it’s only 7%
Consequences for the ‘only’:
- They are far more likely than others to have their judgment questioned than women working in a more balanced environment (49% vs 32%),
- Mistaken for someone more junior (35% vs 15%),
- Subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks (24% vs 14%).
If they are treated like this, no wonder they get overlooked for promotion …
Layer #3: The Superwoman Syndrome while Compensating for Prejudice
Through the magic of LinkedIn, I recently ‘met’ Tanya Janca a woman who is a superstar in tech. In her January 2019 article, she argued that “something that is little talked about in the tech industry is the concept of “Compensating for Prejudice”; actions that we have to take to offset negative perceptions due to being a member of the minority within our industry.”
She is a white woman working in a male-dominated field. But, her insights match my experiences of being the only Black Psychologist just about everywhere I’ve ever been since my graduate training that ended in 1999 and during my career to date. I wish that were different, but it’s something that has been so long-standing that I’ve come to accept it. In retrospect, I don’t dwell on it, but there’s something very wrong with these demographics since Black Psychologists are still extremely rare in Canada but that’s a whole different topic.
Here are some of Ms. Janca’s concrete examples:
- “Trying to prove myself before I’m asked to prove myself.
- Dropping mentions of my amount of time working in tech (21+ years!), my accomplishments (my resume is extensive and impressive)
- I do not want anyone to have any doubt about my competence.
- Attempting to prove myself is something I do because I have been challenged, over and over, throughout my entire career.
- Starting a new job and being asked to recite my resume by the other senior techs.
- Not being invited to key meetings, not be assigned to important projects, not receiving the same opportunities, promotions or pay. Being underestimated, time and time again.
- I’ve fought this bias, usually successfully, by being overqualified and working my ass off.”
On a personal note, I have experienced versions all of the above. As a grad student, I was always the ‘only’ and ‘compensating for prejudice’ in every class. During my professional life in the government, I was always the ‘only’ and sometimes ‘compensating for prejudice’ and to some extent, ‘covering at work’ by downplaying how differently I saw and experienced many situations and circumstances. I won’t say that any of this was necessarily intentional since I am certain that many of my colleagues were and are well-intentioned. There’s no doubt, however, that many of these consequences were systemic and structural (again, this is a whole other topic …). Since starting my practice in 2012, the vast majority of my experiences and interactions in the business community have been as the ‘only’ and sometimes ‘compensating for prejudice.’ It’s become so normal or common that it really is only when someone is experiencing something similar and/or wishes to discuss it with me that I reflect and remember.
I must admit that perhaps as a function of maturity, or professional branding, I don’t really try to blend in. Instead, I revel in the fact that I’m different from 99% of all other Career Coaches and HR Consultants. That’s often why people are starting to seek me out 😊
Implications for Mental Health
I would argue that my life has been more stressful than many other people’s lives. Anyone who has tried to get into a competitive graduate program, completed a PhD, or worked in a professional role while parenting … and getting a divorce will agree. Business owners will also empathize with what I’ve accomplished since starting my practice 6 years ago, as a single parent. Beyond a certain threshold, it’s pretty clear that ongoing stress and pressure does not improve mental health.
In terms of mental health, well ongoing stress aside, I’ve respectfully been called ‘crazy’ and ‘too much’ for the quietly revolutionary way that I’m using psychology to solve serious problems … thank goodness, Nike is now celebrating crazy in their inspiring new ad campaign.
Do you need help navigating the world of work? Contact Dr. Helen today for a free and confidential initial consultation by phone, email, or via direct message on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If something urgent comes up, I’m also available by a voice or video on Magnifi, an expertise-on-demand app.
Have you ever wished you could get inside the head of a hiring manager? You can. Dr. Helen Ofosu is a Career Coach/Counsellor with a difference. She has worked for organizations to create hiring and screening tools. She’s created countless pre-screening tests, interviews, simulations, and role plays for organizations of all kinds.
Dr. Helen’s training in Industrial and Organizational (I/O) Psychology means she is a genuine expert in evaluating work-related behaviours. She uses those skills to help hiring managers tell the difference between people who say the right things during interviews and people who actually deliver on the job. In other words, Dr. Helen understands first-hand how job candidates are assessed.
More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.
I/O Advisory Services – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations.
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