In July 2018, my confidence hit rock-bottom. At work, I felt like I was a fraud and I was going to be found out any minute. I kept thinking “I don’t know what I’m doing; any moment someone will catch me.” At home, I felt like I was not as competent looking after my two children as my husband perceived me to be. I had just returned to my nine to five job after having my second baby, and my feeling of not being good enough in every aspect of my life was excruciating. I felt I was a fraud as the EMEA Marketing Director at my new company and I felt I was also not qualified to look after a baby and a toddler. It became so bad and so overbearing in my life that I seeked the help of a life coach to help me navigate my self-doubt.
But as I was struggling with that sentiment of never feeling good enough, it got me thinking about that problem. As I started researching it and learning more about it, I found out that there is a name for that feeling: that feeling is called the imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome is a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. Imposter syndrome can hit women and men but it weighs more heavily on women.
According to a report by Access Commercial Finance, 66% of women have suffered from imposter syndrome compared to over half of men. According to KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report, 75% of executive women identified having experienced imposter syndrome at various points during their careers—and 85% believe it is commonly experienced by women across corporate America.
As I was researching that topic more and more, I found out that corporate culture exacerbates the problem of imposter syndrome, particularly for women.
We are more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don't see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field.
According to Lean In, women are less likely to be hired and promoted to manager. Its 2019 research shows that for every 100 men brought onto teams and elevated to management, only 72 women experience the same thing. Men hold 62% of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38%. And although one-third of the companies surveyed set gender representation targets for first-level manager roles, 41% of them didn’t for senior levels of management.
Women experiencing imposter syndrome are more likely to follow behaviours that will hinder their career growth. Women suffering from feeling like a fraud find ways to deal with the anxiety through some coping mechanisms. These include things like flying under the radar, not raising your hand, not asking for promotion, not sharing your ideas in meetings. When I was feeling like a fraud in July 2018, I would never share my ideas in meeting by fear of being mocked for how stupid they would be. Self-sabotage, workaholism : in my previous career in technology, most women were workaholic, almost to prove to everyone that they were valuable.
One of my female bosses suffered so much from imposter syndrome herself unconsciously, that she overcompensated her self-doubt by putting down all the other women in her team to show that she was the better one in the team. Interestingly, many of my female friends reported similar experiences where the least supportive bosses they had were other women, who also suffered from imposter syndrome themselves and felt the need to put down all the women in their teams to look like the better one.
According to the Center for Creative leadership, female leaders who show that they value diversity in the workplace receive much lower competency ratings than male leaders who show that they value diversity in the workplace. In contrast, Men’s performance ratings actually increase when they show that they value diversity in the workplace, while women’s performance ratings decrease when they show that they value diversity in the workplace.
This raised a significant question: if women are more likely to experience imposter syndrome, why does it matter to organisations and what should be done?
Imposter syndrome in women matters because as we have seen, it prevents women from accessing leadership positions.
According to the 2019 McKinsey report, for every 100 men promoted to the manager level, only 72 women were promoted. Another research from the Chartered Management Institute reveals that men are more likely than women to have been promoted into senior and higher paying management roles. Male managers are 40% more likely than female managers to be promoted into higher roles.
According to McKinsey & Company “Delivering through Diversity” report, companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation. The highest-performing companies on both profitability and diversity had more women in line (i.e., typically revenue-generating) roles than in staff roles on their executive teams.
I have identified a three-steps formula to prevent imposter syndrome at work in order to achieve gender parity in the organisation and ultimately greater business performance. I use the acronym “SHE”:
S = Speak about it
H = Handle perfectionism and fear
E = Embrace new opportunities
1. Speak about it
Women should speak about their imposter syndrome with their mentor, with their manager if there is trust and with their friends. Managers and team leaders should normalise imposter syndrome. They should talk about imposter syndrome in a very casual way to emphasize how common it is; according to ProofHub, 99.1% prefer a workplace where people identify and discuss issues truthfully and effectively. >50 % say their organization discusses issues truthfully and effectively
2. Handle your perfectionism and fear of failure
Develop a new script. Become aware of the conversation in your head. This is your internal script. Then instead of thinking, “Wait till they find out I have no idea what I’m doing,” tell yourself “Everyone who starts something new feels off-base in the beginning. I may not know all the answers but I’m smart enough to find them out.” A study by Kings College in London revealed that people with anxiety disorder who visualise a positive image reported decreased anxiety, greater happiness and restfulness. Visualising positive images and adopting positive self-talk reduce anxiety and self-doubt.
3. Embrace new opportunities
Now and then we all have to fake it till we make it. Don’t wait until you feel confident to start putting yourself out there. Courage comes from taking risks. Change your behavior first and allow your confidence to build. Ask for stretch assignment and glamour work. Don’t wait until you are ready because you will never be ready.
Organisations should openly discuss imposter syndrome because it will help support women's careers, increase gender parity in leadership which is good for profitability and performance. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg so eloquently said: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception”. Sometimes, all women need is a gentle reminder about how awesome they are.