Are We Women the 'Imposters' Many of Us Think We Are?
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
According to recent Ellevest research, women in business are suffering from “imposter syndrome.” Of the 2,000 American women and men surveyed, nearly half of the women respondents felt they had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts, and 83 percent agreed that men are routinely paid more for the same responsibilities and titles.
Less tangibly, though perhaps more significantly, this "syndrome" leaves women feeling unsure in their abilities, often leading them to eschew promotions, opportunities and dreams. In other words, women in business may feel that their ability to gain momentum is going against them from the get-go.
They may even go so far as to question their successes.
Even Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, author of the bestseller Lean In isn’t immune to feeling like a fraud, which she regards as a female trait. As she noted in her book, “Despite being high achievers . . . women can't seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are . . . impostors with limited skills or abilities.”
Reading Sandberg's words, I can’t help but reflect on my own upbringing in India, which, surprisingly, was at odds with the above sentiments. Despite living in a conservative household, I never saw my self-confidence influenced by anything but my own moral compass. Other people didn’t factor into my equation; I wanted to study, work, freely marry and live independently. And I was able to pursue those goals.
It wasn’t until I moved to the United States, in fact, that I experienced the comparison between women and men as more relative than absolute. Here, I witnessed gender bias in a different form -- one that's perhaps less explicit but heavily internalized.
Still, that bias doesn’t have to lead to self-doubt. Rather, entrepreneurial women should examine the reasons behind their lack of confidence and learn to see themselves in the way they should.
The problem isn't just with others.
My experiences aren’t unique. Western societies, from my observations, tend to have a much more explicit “confidence gap” between women and men than occurs between the genders in the developing world and among emerging populations. Is it because, as the Global Gender Gap report shows, American women get only about 67 cents on the dollar compared with the pay of their male counterparts? Not necessarily, although that compensation difference is certainly a factor.
The truth is far more complicated than economics alone. According to a study by YaleGlobal, women across the industrialized world are earning degrees at impressive rates, then starting businesses and climbing corporate ladders. They’re successful by all measurable accounts. At the same time, they don’t seem able to enjoy their successes because of the above-described deep-seated doubts.
I’ve seen women delay moves and turn down better jobs -- not because they weren’t qualified, but because they held themselves responsible in too many other areas. Indeed, many women feel they’re the sole proprietors of home-life stability, their children’s happiness, support of their aging parents and other duties. Thus, making a corporate move can feel risky and be met with resistance both internally and externally.
Additionally, women often forget that success isn't one giant step in the future -- it’s one small step now. In other words, it’s not necessary to have 100 percent of the skills and experiences you need to move on, as long as you have the passion and perseverance to learn.
Helping foment cultural change is up to you, personally.
Consider McClary Bros. owner Jess Sanchez McClary, who as a Hispanic woman didn’t allow herself to be pigeonholed by expectations or socio-economic status. Neither did Natural Red founder Karen Guilmette, who fought gender discrimination head-on with self-assurance. Few, though, could be more impassioned about equality than PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi, who's noted that she hates “being called sweetie or honey,” although she deals with it regularly, despite her esteemed position.
These women have flipped the narrative, and they've done that by applying a few key practices that all women entrepreneurs could benefit from.
1. Become a public face for a public problem. If you’re the token woman on the job -- like the mere 6 percent of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies or the 17 percent of women startup founders -- embrace your role and leverage it to create opportunity.
For instance, many high-visibility events actively look for women guest panelists and keynote speakers. In January, Twitter hosted a major tech event with an all-women speaker lineup, a big move for that industry. By plugging yourself into the position of being a top star on the conference circuit, you'll not only garner exposure for your company or profession, but may also open new doors -- both for you and future generations.
2. Be so good that you can’t be ignored, and communicate your confidence. It’s tough to ignore someone who’s crushing the competition. Be that person in your industry by becoming more prepared, practiced and learned than the next man or woman. Confidence comes from action, not talk. Knowing you’ve done everything you can to influence your situation -- even if you don't have complete control over its outcome -- will lead to a feeling of self-satisfaction and control.
Still, as much as you should act with intention and leadership rather than make excuses for your gender-related needs, you should also prioritize clear and effective communication. For instance, my husband and I often communicate as if we’re going through lowered-defensiveness “performance-management” conversations.
What I mean is that we embrace intentions during our discussions in lieu of emotions. It’s a winning strategy that I’ve since used in all other aspects of my life, including on the job, because it ensures my voice is heard. Ultimately, the more you speak up, the less likely you are to be stereotyped or pushed aside.
3. Embrace opportunities to become the go-to person in your field. The next time an opportunity arises, remind yourself that you’re not a woman first -- you're a professional. Yes, your gender gives you a unique perspective, but everyone has a unique perspective. Being a woman is an attribute that needn’t drive every action, so don’t allow it to become the only lens through which you view the universe.
If you're not sure that you’re ready for a new chapter in business, for example, ask yourself why not. Starting something new can be scary, but it shouldn't rely on the stars aligning just so. Moreover, something new can instill greater self-confidence, pushing you to be the go-to leader of your industry.
In fact, every place you touch -- including social media -- should be a chance for you to exhibit your expertise. So, stop posting on your professional Facebook page about your personal life, and start promoting yourself as a writer, speaker, leader and/or founder. In time, you’ll be the one people think of when they need to know something; they'll place you at the top of the competition, regardless of your gender.
The next time you feel a twinge of imposter syndrome, focus on harnessing those public opportunities, standing out in action and communication and embracing the myriad possibilities that will come your way. Your success story is exactly that: your story.