Impostor Phenomenon and Females' Self-Esteem,
GPA, and Relationship with Mother

Melissa R. Garwick
Annalise C. Ford
Jennifer L. Hughes*

Agnes Scott College

Keywords: imposter, phenomenon, females, fraudulence, self-doubt, achievement, self-esteem, relationship


The Impostor Phenomenon (IP) has been found mainly in high-achieving women in academic and career fields. Clance and Imes (1978) were the first researchers to identify this phenomenon. For this study, we examined self-esteem levels, grade point average (GPA), and participants’ relationship with their mother. We collected data using an Internet survey taken by 401 female undergraduate and graduate students whose ages ranged from 17 to 42. As hypothesized, females’ relationship with their mother was inversely related to their IP score. However, self-esteem and GPA were not significantly related to females’ IP score. These findings caution mothers to be careful about how they develop their relationship with their daughters.


Procrastination is common today, whether it is putting off an assignment for school or a presentation for work. Although some miss their deadlines and face penalties, others are able to pull off high quality work at the last minute. How people cope with procrastination can vary greatly. Some wait until the last minute infrequently and therefore do not dwell on the action of procrastinating. Others do not like the stress of procrastinating and never wait that long again. For some, procrastination is a chronic issue that leads to feelings of being an impostor, despite success they may achieve. There are more people who over prepare and feel like a fake. These people have fallen victim to the Impostor Phenomenon (IP).

The term IP was first identified by Clance and Imes in the 1970s (1978). They looked at successful women who felt they had used deception to achieve their high school or career status. They constantly feared being found out as fakes (Clance & Imes, 1978). First thought to be predominantly associated with women, previous research has led to mixed results (Caselman, Self, & Self, 2006). It appears that men may also exhibit IP symptoms as well. However, that discussion is not within the scope of this paper.

The goal of this study was to find out if there is a connection between the IP and females and various variables, including self-esteem levels, relationship with mother, and grade point average (GPA). If further research on the IP is not conducted, then it could continue to grow without any insight about how to curb or combat these feelings. So far most research on this topic has been focused on identifying whether or not the scales are reliable (e.g., Kolligan & Sternberg, 1991) or if a specific variable is a strong predictor of the IP (e.g., King & Cooley, 1995). However, if a specific sub-group is found to be particularly at risk for IP feelings, then perhaps steps could be taken to improve the conditions females share (e.g., low self-esteem or poor maternal relationships), resulting in a greater decline of IP symptoms.

The IP is defined as a set of feelings (including, but not limited to self-doubt, feeling like a fake, anxiety related to avoidance of performance reviews, and fear of being found out as a fraud) experienced mainly by professionals at the graduate level of school or in high positions in their careers (Caselman et al., 2006). Although most people experience feelings of self-doubt from time to time, the IP is distinguished by the persistence and severity of these symptoms. Despite objective measures available to determine how intelligent or worthy of praise a person is, victims of IP feelings will still negate worthiness (McElwee & Yurak, 2007). We chose to look at three specific traits in females: self-esteem, GPA, and relationship with mother to try to determine the relationship of variables with the IP. Although there has not been resounding agreement in the literature as to whether the IP affects females more than males (Caselman et al., 2006), it was first studied solely in females (Clance & Imes, 1978). Self-esteem seemed to be a logical variable to study because the IP deals with feelings of self-doubt and a lack of confidence in general. We selected GPA because it was a reasonable way to select high-achieving individuals.

A few studies have examined self-esteem more in depth. Langford and Clance (1993) used the Self-Esteem Scale by Rosenberg (1965) and found that self-esteem is more complex than perhaps previously thought. Because self-esteem is multidimentional, it is possible for a person to exhibit satisfactory self-esteem in general, yet low levels in the areas dealing with the IP, particularly achievement.

Langford and Clance (1993) also found that self-esteem might be one way in which to measure the pressure some people put on themselves, potentially leading to IP feelings. For example, someone may try to live up to a self-imposed standard. As long as they attain it or some praise and positive feedback from others, their self-esteem is high and their IP feelings are low. However, if they do not attain the predetermined goal, their self-esteem can drop while IP feelings spike upward. Therefore, we predict females with high self-esteem levels will have low IP scores.

For females, receiving feedback from their mother is most important. Caselman et al. (2006) found that family relationships are strong predictors for the IP, and the two have a strong negative correlation. Besides just stating that the family is important when it comes to IP feelings, King and Cooley (1995) further found that the more importance a family places on achievement, the higher the IP levels. Although paternal overprotection and a lack of parental care were associated with high IP scores, maternal care is linked to self-handicapping (Want & Kleitman, 2005). Self-handicapping could be interpreted as a symptom of low self-esteem. Gibson-Beverly and Schwartz (2008) supported this finding with their research that showed if a female had low feelings of entitlement she would be more prone to IP feelings later on in life. Miller and Kastburg (1995) found that women in administrative roles could be expected to have a harder time accepting themselves as capable of success. This is because they were so used to growing up with a family structure where the mother stayed at home and the father had a job outside of the home, neither necessarily working in a prestigious capacity.

Another issue is parentification, or the role reversal between parent and child, especially if the parent is ill (Castro, Jones, & Mirsalimi, 2004), which usually leads individuals to develop feelings of a false self. How someone feels about his or her self is formed by family interactions.  Those with the mother are particularly important for females. For these reasons, we predict that females with a strong relationship with their mother will have low IP scores.

How much importance the family, the mother in particular, places on high achievement in school will factor into how a child at least tries to perform in school. King and Cooley’s (1995) research demonstrated a positive link between high levels of the IP and higher GPAs. This makes sense because the previous variables (self-esteem and relationship with mother) can affect the outcome of one’s GPA. If a female’s self-esteem is based on approval from her family, and the family values strong scholastic abilities, one way for her to live up to their expectations would be to try to attain a high GPA. It should be mentioned that Bernard, Dollinger, and Ramaniah (2002) found no important difference when it came to participants’ level of the IP and GPAs above and below a 3.0. Although GPA may not always be a significant link to the IP, it can be important when gauging the strength of the variables of self-esteem and maternal relationship.

All three of these variables are important when it comes to determining whether or not someone is at risk for developing IP feelings. Although these variables have already been isolated, it is now important to see how they work in conjunction with each other and what type of people tend to experience them in a combination. Once that is determined, it may be possible to come up with techniques to lessen the number of people who develop IP feelings. Instead of trying to combat the feelings once they have already developed, it may prove more effective to change parenting strategies and use self-esteem building techniques early on to prevent the development of IP feelings. Although there is some disagreement about how these variables relate to the IP, it can generally be concluded that high achieving women with below desirable self-esteem are affected by the IP (Langford & Clance, 1993).



Four hundred and one females took the survey. The participants included both undergraduate and graduate students whose ages ranged from 17 to 42. The sample included 66.1 percent self-reporting White participants, 15.5 percent were African American, 8.2 percent were bi- or multi-racial, 6 percent were Asian, and 0.2 percent were American Indian.


Impostor phenomenon. The Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale (Clance, 1985) was used to evaluate the IP. A Likert scale was used for the 20-item scale, which ranged from 1 to 5, not at all true to very true. In support of the scale’s validity, it was found to reliably differentiate impostors from nonimpostors. As evidence of its reliability, Holmes, Kertay, Adamson, Holland, and Clance (1993) found an alpha coefficient of .96 for the scale. The reliability coefficient for this study was .92.

Parental relations. The Parental Bonding Instrument (Parker, Tupling, & Brown, 1979) is a scale used to measure adolescents’ perceptions of their relationship with their parents up to age 16. It has 25 items in which participants think back to when they were 16 or younger and rate how their parents behaved as well as their parents’ attitudes. Although this measure features two subscales—caring and overprotection, only the caring subscale was utilized. An example item is “Spoke to me in a warm and friendly voice.” Participants rated the items using a Likert scale that ranged from 1 to 4, very unlike to very like. Support for the internal consistency of the scale was found by Mullis, Graf, and Mullis (2009), including split-half reliability coefficients of .88 for care and .74 for overall protection. The coefficient alpha for this sub-scale for this study was .91.

Self-esteem. The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSE; Rosenberg, 1965) has 10 items to measure self-esteem. One example item is “I am able to do things as well as most other people.” Participants rated the items using a Likert scale that ranged from 1 to 5, strongly disagree to agree. Higher scores indicated higher self-esteem. Multiple studies have supported the validity of this scale. Hagborg (1996) found that the RSE not only correlated with comparable self-esteem measures in adults, but in children as well. A coefficient alpha of .83 was reported by Hatcher and Hall (2009) for the scale. A reliability coefficient alpha of .75 was found for this study.


A snowball sampling technique was used by 11 undergraduate research assistants. We each recruited between 25 and 35 participants for the study via e-mail. Individuals had to be undergraduate or graduate students. Participants were asked about demographic, school, and health information in the online survey. Although participation was voluntary, all who agreed to participate were put into a drawing for one of four $50 gift cards to Target.


For this study, participants were assigned to one of three (high, medium, or low) or four (high, medium, medium-low, or low) groups for their self-esteem, relationship with mother, and GPA. Percentiles were used to place participants into one of these groups. Females between the 33rd and 66th percentile (total score of 27 to 32) were considered to have a medium level of self-esteem; females with a total score of 4 to 5 were considered to have a medium GPA; females with a total score of 37 to 45 were considered to have a mid-strength relationship with their mother. High strength relationships were considered to be females with total scores of 33 to 55 for self-esteem, 1 to 3 for GPA, and 46 to 48 for relationship with their mother. Low levels were constituted by a total score of 1 to 26 for self-esteem, 9 to 15 for GPA, and 1 to 36 for relationship with their mother. For GPA, a medium-low level is considered a score of 6 to 8, 2.40 to 2.99 on a 4.0 scale.

Hypothesis 1, females with high self-esteem will have low IP scores, was not supported. Using a one-way analysis of variance, we found that females’ self-esteem levels between the high, medium, and low groups did not vary greatly with respect to the IP, F (2, 497) = 1.05, p = .35.

Hypothesis 2, females with high GPAs will have high IP scores, was not supported. Using a one-way analysis of variance, we found that the four different levels of GPA (high, medium, medium-low, and low), did not vary greatly with respect to the IP, F (3, 436) = 1.80, p = .15.

Hypothesis 3, females with strong relationships with their mothers will have low IP scores, was supported. Using a one-way analysis of variance, we found that females with high, medium, and low levels of supportive relationships with their mother reported significantly different levels of IP, F (2, 392) = 16.34, p < .001. We used Scheffé post-hoc comparisons to look at the differences between the three groups. The females with high levels of relationships with their mothers reported significantly fewer IP feelings (M = 53.93, SD = 13.28) than the females with mid-strength relationships with their mothers (M = 61.14, SD = 14.25) and the females with low-strength relationships with their mothers (M = 63.88, SD = 14.89).


Females’ self-esteem and GPA scores were not found to significantly relate to their IP scores. Both Hypothesis 1 and 2 were not supported. Hypothesis 3, however, was supported, as females’ relationships with their mothers were shown to be significantly related to their IP scores. Although it does make logical sense that whether or not a female has a strong support system would lead to different IP feelings, further investigation is needed to look into how and why females’ self-esteem and GPAs did not significantly correlate with their IP scores. Perhaps in order to experience IP feelings a combination of variables, or different variables other than self-esteem and grades, are needed. It is possible for someone to feel confident in certain areas of their life, while simultaneously feeling fraudulent in other areas (Langford & Clance, 1993).

Important implications can be drawn from these research findings. Because self-esteem is not significantly related to the IP, it does not need to be a focus when looking at ways to prevent negative IP feelings from occurring. However, that is not to say that self-esteem is not important. Rather, its level of high versus low will not necessarily determine whether or not a female is more or less likely to experience IP feelings. Although Langford and Clance (1993) found that self-esteem could be used to measure the amount of pressure some people put on him- or her self could lead to IP feelings, it was not supported by this study. However, this could have been because our study used only females. Langford and Clance (1993) found it mostly among males.

Almost the same can be concluded about GPA. Although earning and maintaining excellent grades is an accomplishment that should not be overlooked, it can be ignored when considering whether or not IP feelings may result in females. These results further support the findings by Bernard, et al. (2002) that there was no important difference when it came to participants’ level of IP and GPAs above and below a 3.0. However, these results do not support those found by King and Cooley (1995). Their research posited that higher IP levels are associated with higher GPAs. This difference may be because of our varying sample sizes. The main difference is that King and Cooley (1995) recruited specifically from psychology and mathematics courses, while this study looked at students from a variety of majors.

Perhaps the most important implications can be found with respect to females’ relationship with their mothers. The findings of this study reflect those found by Caselman et al. (2006) in that family relationships are strongly negatively correlated with the IP. Because those females who reported strong relationships with their mothers also reported low IP feelings, this should be a focus of groups that are trying to look for factors to evaluate in order to curb the development of IP feelings. It would be beneficial for communities to offer more mother-daughter centered activities. For example, workplaces could encourage mothers to bring daughters to the work place once every few months, and individual mothers could make it a point to spend quality time with their daughters. Perhaps communities could offer courses or even a website with suggestions about healthy and fun ways to bond.

This study had several strengths, including looking at the combination of self-esteem, GPA, and relationship with mother from a solely female perspective. Much of the literature is divided on whether or not males or females experience IP feelings more, so it was beneficial to limit the study to only females and to add to that knowledge base about them. The sample sizes were large in comparison to many studies previously conducted (Caselman et al., 2006).

Some weaknesses may be noted with this study. The questionnaire was only sent out via e-mail, so participants would have to have access to the Internet in order to take it. However, using an online survey allowed the study to gain participants from colleges and universities all over the nation. Also, the data collected for self-esteem, the IP, and about participants’ relationships with their mothers was all self-reported. There is always the potential for participants to lie, however the use of anonymity hopefully helped to avoid inaccurate reports. A final weakness is that, when using self-reported data, the information obtained is subjective. However, the IP itself is about perceived feelings and emotions, so this route seemed most fitting to collect data.

Future research should include not only females but males as well. Perhaps a focus on males’ relationships with their fathers would be useful. Another potential focus could be looking at sons’ and daughters’ relationships with each parent. Investigations might also include examining which type of mother-daughter relationships yields the lowest IP scores. Another focus could be on the best ways to bond in order to help reduce IP feelings and whether it is possible to prevent IP feelings from ever starting. A future study could look at whether or not IP feelings could be reversed if a strong relationship was formed between a mother and daughter once the daughter enters adulthood; whether or not there is an age by which a relationship must be established in order for it to be effective against IP feelings. Finally, it could prove interesting to see if certain relationships with maternal figures versus biological mothers can be effective substitutes, and which relationship works best: aunt, grandmother, teacher, friend.

Although self-esteem and GPA were not found to be predictors of IP, relationship with participants’ mother was found to be a predictor. The results for self-esteem and GPA were not supported by the literature; however this could be because of differences in sample size and other characteristics of studies. The results for the mother-daughter relationship were supported by the literature. More research should be conducted to look at the best ways to form mother-daughter relationships and to foster no or low feelings of the IP.


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