It’s Time to Beat Imposter Syndrome and Own Your Success as a Women Leader

You’ve done it. You’ve reached a level of achievement that so many aspire to – securing that coveted promotion in your dream career, excelling in your specialised field, and earning the admiration and respect of your boss and colleagues. You should be celebrating and basking in your hard-earned success. What makes you think you’re not as deserving as everyone else seems to believe?

That’s what we call imposter syndrome. It’s that pervasive belief that we’re not good enough, that we’re just faking it and will eventually be exposed. While imposter syndrome can affect anyone, regardless of their accomplishments, the earliest studies to explore this phenomenon zoomed in on high-achieving women, shedding light on the unique challenges we face in navigating our success. Recent research shows that a staggering 75% of female executives, spanning different industries, have come face to face with imposter syndrome at some point in their careers.

What’s the story behind “imposter syndrome”?

The term “imposter syndrome”, which we’ve all become familiar with, originated in the late 1970s to describe a phenomenon observed in high-achieving women in the United States. It was psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who paved the way for understanding this phenomenon in their ground-breaking 1978 study.

They coined it the “imposter phenomenon” and focused their research on the experiences of highly accomplished women. Interestingly enough, they discovered that despite their remarkable academic and professional achievements, these women genuinely felt like they were lacking intelligence and had somehow managed to deceive every one who saw their potential.

Imes and Clance found that these so-called imposters don’t embrace or enjoy their accomplishments. Instead, they strongly believe that they tricked others into thinking they’re skilled, and that’s why they’re successful. According to the study, people with impostor syndrome behave in ways that show their lack of confidence. They constantly struggle with themselves because, even though they’re motivated to work hard, the fear of being exposed as a fraud stops them from reaching their full potential. Consequently, they avoid situations where they might succeed.

It’s worth noting that according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, imposter syndrome is not classified as a mental health disorder. However, studies indicate that approximately 70% of people will encounter this phenomenon at least once in their lifetime – which goes to show that imposter syndrome is far more common than we might think!

So, why do we fall into this trap?

Well, there are many factors at play. And it’s not just about how we perceive ourselves; it’s also about the external pressures we face. Based on their own experiments, Clance and Imes came to the conclusion that impostor syndrome is significantly shaped by the immense pressures people experience from both society and their families.

Stereotypes and biases can make it even harder for women to fully embrace their success. The more we feel judged or criticised by others, the more intense the syndrome becomes.

What’s the difference between imposter syndrome and self-doubt?

Let’s get one thing straight: a little bit of self-doubt here and there is perfectly normal. In fact, experts agree that most people have felt like an imposter at some point in their lives, particularly in nerve-wracking situations. Whether it’s going on a blind date or starting at a new job, those feelings of uncertainty can creep in.

The key is to reflect on the frequency and duration of those feelings. Is it a temporary, situational experience that comes and goes? Or is it a persistent, nagging presence that lingers in your thoughts? Imposter syndrome manifests in ways that leave us questioning our worth and constantly second-guessing our abilities.

Anxiety, stress, and burnout become unwelcome companions as we strive to meet self-imposed expectations. The negative self-talk becomes a constant soundtrack, drowning out our accomplishments and overshadowing our success. We basically become trapped in a cycle of relentless self-scrutiny, even when we are performing exceptionally well.

How men and women deal with imposter syndrome differently

Research surprisingly reveals that imposter syndrome doesn’t favour one gender over the other. However, it does show that men and women tend to experience it differently. Men often hold themselves back by shying away from challenging goals and avoiding feedback.

Meanwhile, us women, we tend to go the extra mile, constantly pushing ourselves to prove our worth. No matter how much we achieve, the stress and anxiety just won’t let up. Many of us hesitate to ask questions or seek help, fearing that it would reveal our perceived shortcomings.

Workplace factors amplifying imposter syndrome

While imposter syndrome can stem from personal experiences and upbringing, there are several workplace factors that contribute to its prevalence among women leaders, including the following:

Representation and role models

Seeing someone who looks like you and shares your background achieving success in your field can be a powerful source of inspiration and validation. Unfortunately, the scarcity of women in leadership roles can make us question our place and make success seem unattainable.

Sexist and racist remarks

Disparaging comments that perpetuate stereotypes, such as women being too emotional or lacking competence in technical fields, can inflict lasting damage on our confidence. These remarks reinforce societal biases and fuel imposter syndrome.

Supportive performance management

A performance manager who understands the challenges posed by imposter syndrome and actively supports our growth can make a world of difference. Frequent feedback, opportunities to showcase our expertise, and mentorship can provide the validation and encouragement we need to conquer self-doubt.

The gender pay gap

The persistent disparity in compensation between men and women further exacerbates imposter syndrome. Unequal pay not only undermines our sense of value but also reinforces the notion that our contributions are less significant than those of our male counterparts.

Past Experiences and lack of confidence

Previous negative experiences in unsupportive work environments can leave deep scars on our self-confidence. These experiences can make it even more challenging to overcome imposter syndrome and fully embrace our capabilities.

All of these factors highlight the need for change and a collective effort to create an environment where women can truly thrive.

Overcoming imposter syndrome is within your reach

To overcome imposter syndrome, it’s all about taking that first step. Start by acknowledging and celebrating your wins. Remind yourself that you deserve every bit of success you’ve achieved. Focus on your unique strengths and take pride in them.

Remember, making mistakes is part of the learning process. And even though it’s easier said than done, try to be kind to yourself and replace negative self-talk with uplifting affirmations.