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How Jon Stewart's resignation re-ignited the 'Lean In' debate

When “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart announced his pending departure from the show earlier this month, he probably had no idea he was about to revitalize the debate over the "Lean In" movement.

First, a recap: After Stewart's announcement, some fans of Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams took to social media and even created an online petition to get her in the anchor seat. Williams, 25, politely denied rumors on Twitter, saying she was "under-qualified" for the job. Then, the blogosphere erupted. A writer took Williams' tweet and ran with it, accusing her of being yet another female victim of imposter syndrome, a condition that makes people question their ability to take on a new role. Williams didn't appreciate the diagnosis.

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The blogger, Billfold editor Ester Bloom, later apologized for her attack on Williams’ career choice and character.  Regardless, their Twitter exchange has become a prime example of the complicated climate in which working women find themselves today.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg unleashed a kind of post-feminist movement in 2013 when her book “Lean In” was published. Sandberg, who acknowledged the glaring gender imbalance within her own industry, exhorted working women to be more assertive in their jobs, demand the higher pay they deserve (and that their male counterparts are already getting), and most importantly, not to step back from their careers for fear they won’t have enough time for their kids.  

But all that encouragement can lead some to feel burdened, rather than buoyed. We know our abilities and our priorities better than anyone. And when given the choice to pursue a certain career path or climb another rung on the ladder, we now have the added pressure of knowing that if we don’t step up, others may wind up thinking less of us for it — and writing about it.

Learning to ‘lean back’

“I think ‘lean in’ is a positive message and most women needed to hear it, but what I think is dangerous is when people take that to mean they have to have it all and do it all,” says Alexandra Levit, a workplace consultant, career coach and author of “Blind Spots” and “Success for Hire.”  

While we encourage women to lean in, Levit says, we have to also be considerate of those who decide to lean back over the course of their career. Sandberg told a story in her book of a time when she turned down the job as CEO of LinkedIn to have another child. Levit herself had a ‘lean back’ moment when she was recently offered a government contract that would have given her the opportunity to grow her small business into a multimillion-dollar company. The mother of two young children, she decided it wasn’t the right time for her.

“There’s a time in your life when you are going full throttle and you have freedom, fewer responsibilities, and it doesn’t matter if you’re working 80 hours a week,” she says. “But there are going to be times when you want to be focusing on something else.”

Managing Imposter Syndrome

At those points in our career when it would benefit us to lean in a little — when we want a promotion or a raise or a new project — imposter syndrome, coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, can hold us back. The condition was best described, based on Clance and Imes’ research, in a 2012 Ted Talk by author Hannah Kent:

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"The impostor phenomenon is when you suffer from feelings of fraudulence which are powered by fear,” Kent says. Women are more likely to chalk up any career success “to luck, to being in the right place at the right time, to factors other than ability,” and “[they] live in fear that eventually some significant person will discover that they are, indeed, intellectual impostors.”

The condition is defined by the tendency to downplay your abilities or take professional failures as a sign that you lack certain skills or attributes of others. Essentially, you walk around your office feeling like a fraud all the time.

While research has shown that women are especially susceptible, Valerie Young, author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women” who speaks about imposter syndrome, says both sexes go through it.

“Women tend to respond differently to failure and mistakes and criticism,” Young says. “We internalize it and blame ourselves, whereas men are more likely to externalize and say ‘well, it’s not my fault,’ when they hear criticism.”

Unfortunately, imposter syndrome can become another tool that outsiders use to criticize women for their choices  — especially if that choice runs counter to others’ expectations, as in Williams’ case. Even though she wasn’t suffering from imposter’s syndrome, her choice not to make a move for Stewart’s chair came across as unambitious and un-lean-in-like.

Once again, there’s pressure to defy gender stereotypes of feeling insecure about our abilities while also being realistic about whether a certain opportunity would fit our desired lifestyle. If we turn down a job or don’t go for a promotion, is it because we are just another overly self-critical woman fallen victim to imposter syndrome, or are we savvy enough to know our limits and what will make us happy?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

“Women have layered definitions of success that goes beyond money, status and power,” Young says. “For that reason, it does get more complicated to explain why we don’t want certain things. We have to decide that for ourselves.”

For more on the "Imposter Syndrome" check out our full interview with Dr. Valerie Young below: