“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
―Malala Yousafzai

March is Women’s History Month, a time to both honor the historical contributions of women around the world, as well as to work to increase the standard of living and political rights of women today. While women have ascended to leadership roles throughout society, pervasive trends such as the gender pay gap illustrate how men and women have not yet fully achieved equality. Inequality extends beyond workplace to mental health and emotional well-being, as women experience higher rates of depression and anxiety than their male counterparts.  For women of color, sexism is compounded by racism and xenophobia in everyday life which can further contribute to psychological distress.

The impostor phenomenon which describes an internal experience of feeling like a fraud was first described in high-achieving women, yet affects men and people of all racial groups.  However, the double whammy of being a woman and a person of color grappling with impostor feelings can heighten concerns about not measuring up.  Even former First Lady Michelle Obama has had impostor feelings. Prevailing negative stereotypes about women and people of color can fuel a high level of self-consciousness about how one is being viewed. This, in turn, can trigger a fear of rejection which makes us hesitate to act or express ourselves in anticipation of a negative outcome–be it failure or social rejection. Biologically speaking, rejection feels a lot like physical pain (2011 study), so it’s no wonder that we go out of our way to avoid it.

Fear of rejection holds us back and can lead to people-pleasing such as agreeing with others for fear of confrontation. It can cause you to bite your tongue and stop short of advocating for yourself.  Ultimately, acting on these fears will make you frustrated. In fact, studies have shown  how women develop greater fear of career rejection because of gender stereotyping (The Clayman Institute for Gender Research) and lower their own self-assessment and career aspirations as a result (2014 study).

Here are a few tips to help you deal with your fear of rejection and carve out your own career achievements:

  1. Focus on You. Rather than focusing on what others will think of you when, as a woman, you ask for a raise or take a seat in a male-dominated classroom where you are in the minority as a person of color, look inward. Do you stand by your work? Do you want to be heard? If you can answer affirmatively to these questions, then you can take on whatever challenge comes your way!

  2. Speak Up. Believe in yourself and believe in what you are asking for, and you will project that confidence onto your audience. Once your audience senses your power, they’re more likely to listen. Check out this TedX Talk to get inspired and learn more.

  3. Stay Positive. Instead of thinking about the terrible things that could result, focus instead on the positive possibilities. By thinking optimistically, you not only project more confidence but you navigate your thoughts and actions toward a better outcome.

Regardless of your gender or ancestry, I hope these tips help provide some encouragement and reassurance the next time you are dealing with impostor feelings or fear of failure and rejection.

Be well,

Anuja Khemka
Executive Director