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Why Black and Latinx women face the struggle of impostor syndrome

“I have to start, like, showing up and identifying as the person that matches my accomplishments,” one graduate student said.

Keyli Motino, a first-generation college student who was born in Honduras, began doubting her academic self-efficacy when she realized she was the only woman in her computer science class this spring.

“I found myself just like, ‘Do I really belong here?’ My confidence was just down on the floor,” said Motino, who recently completed her first year at Franklin and Marshall College.

It’s called impostor syndrome — when one perceives themselves as an intellectual and professional fraud —and she’s not alone. More than half of women said they have felt like impostors, compared to only 24% of men, according to a study by Heriot-Watt University and the School for CEOs. And younger people were more prone to feeling like an impostor: 45% of young professionals compared to 30% of older professionals said they doubt their abilities.

Keyli Motino.Courtesy Keyli Motino

For Black and Latinx college women, the intersecting challenges of racism and sexism make them even more susceptible to impostor syndrome. A 2020 study by the Indian Institute of Management found that, for Black doctoral and postdoctoral scholars in STEM, gender was one of the many intersecting identities that contributed to feelings of impostor syndrome, with Black women often being the only or one of very few in their field. 

Unfortunately, situations of being the only do not stop at college. A 2019 report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company found that 45 percent of women of color have been the only person of their gender in corporate rooms, and the number is even higher for women in STEM fields.

”I think whenever you’re the first or the few or the only, you’ve got that added pressure now to represent your entire group,” said Valerie Young, co-founder of the Impostor Syndrome Institute. She said, “I think finding support is critical, especially if you are the only, the one, or the few.”

Fostering community through campus organizations, employee resource groups, professional associations or even Facebook groups can help Black and Latinx women manage their impostor feelings in professional and academic settings.

Aside from gender, research also shows that racial identity is predictive of impostor syndrome among high-achieving minorities.

Kayla Kinsler graduated magna cum laude from Howard University this past spring. She was on the dean’s list all four years, had four internships and is currently working as a research assistant in the Stanford University AHEaD (Advancing Health Equity and Diversity) summer research program at Stanford’s School of Medicine. In spite of her achievements, Kinsler still doubted her ability to be accepted into Brown University’s School of Public Health, where she’s pursuing her master’s degree in public health this fall on full scholarship.

“I had no intentions of getting in, like, at all … because it’s an Ivy League university, and the competition was so high. I just didn’t even see myself as having a chance at getting in,” Kinsler said.

Black and Latinx people’s impostor feelings are often racialized and linked to feelings of anxiety because of the stereotypes often associated with their race, according to a study from the University of Texas at Austin.

Motino found herself struck with emotion when working on a project as one of 25 people admitted into Apple’s Engineering and Technology Camp one summer during high school.

“I was working on this project for the computer science part of it, and I just broke down into tears because I just didn’t think I could do it,” Motino said, explaining how she felt like the only one who did not know what to do.

Talisa “Tali” Lavarry, the owner of Yum Yum Morale, a workplace diversity, equity and inclusion firm and the author of “Confessions From Your Token Black Colleague,” advises Black and Latinx women to give themselves more credit.

“Just remember that we are all human … There’s no sense in you feeling like you are undeserving; you are in the room. Somehow, you got in there. I don’t care how it happened [or] if it was by chance. You are in the room. Work it. You belong there,” Lavarry said.

Impostor feelings can thrive in Black and Latinx women in professional and academic settings when they do not see themselves represented in leadership positions. Only 58 Black women and 71 Latinx women are promoted for every 100 men that are promoted to management positions, according to a 2020 report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company. That same report found that only 3 percent of women of color held C-suite positions in 2020 compared to 66 percent of white men.

“I think that leaders — managers, in particular — have to tap into empathy in some capacity, and they have to be willing to admit that Black and Latina women have struggled and do struggle in the workplace,” Lavarry said. ”[T]heir empathy and their willingness to train and do follow-up and, you know, really pay attention and make investments in this area, that’s what’s going to help.”

Studies show that companies benefit from diversity and having women in leadership. And, to continue to prosper, they must consider their plans for diversifying their entry-level talent, management, leadership and pipeline programs.

While companies adapt to an ever-changing society, Black and Latinx women are finding ways to manage their impostor feelings before they graduate college and enter the workforce.

“I just started writing, like, little notes to myself on the mirror saying, ‘You’re perfect’ or ‘You’re successful,’ said Chaselynn Grant, a senior mass communications major at Southern University and A&M College and the first HBCU to Hollywood scholarship and internship recipient at production company NuContext Creative.

Chaselynn Grant.Michael Foster

“Every time when I’m feeling some type of way, I always think back to, you know, what I have done in the past eight years, now, I’ve been in the country … I always think back on, like, what my path has been,” Motino said of managing her impostor feelings.

Though Kinsler has not quite figured it out, it is something she is working towards.

“I have to start, like, showing up and identifying as the person that matches my accomplishments,” Kinsler said. “I just haven’t reached that point.”

CNBC’s ”College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Darreonna Davis, a rising junior studying journalism at Howard University, is currently an intern for CNBC’s Specials Team. Her CNBC mentor is Courtney Connley. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

Disclosure: Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow. is a financial wellness and education initiative from CNBC and Acorns, the micro-investing appl. NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

This story was originally published on CNBC.com.

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