Imposter Syndrome Predominantly Affects Women — Here's How We Can Overcome It We need more women in leadership, but the burden of imposter syndrome adds new barriers and threatens their success. Here's how we break through.
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Sure, imposter syndrome affects everyone: At some point, an estimated 70% of people feel like imposters. But for women, the burden is heavier to bear. Not only do they suffer the self-imposed doubt of feeling like an imposter, but societal forces and stereotypes can often cause others to second-guess their abilities, compounding and reinforcing those negative self-beliefs. For women, feeling like an imposter creates professional barriers that threaten our success.
An internal study by Hewlett Packard reportedly found that men apply to jobs when they only meet about 60% of the qualifications, while women tend to apply only if they meet 100. Subsequent research seems to back that up. A 2019 LinkedIn report found that while both men and women viewed nearly the same amount of jobs and expressed similar interest in them, women were 16% less likely to apply. Overall, they applied to 20% fewer jobs than men.
Experts have proposed that more women in leadership would improve company performance and profitability, but first, the corporate ladder needs fixing. In 2021, a McKinsey study reported that only 86 women receive promotions for every 100 men. By empowering women with more tools and knowledge to break through the extra glass ceilings of imposter syndrome, we have a better chance of achieving that reality.
Women and imposter syndrome
In 1978, psychologists developed the concept of the "imposter phenomenon." Their research focused on high-achieving women who believed themselves less intelligent and fooling others into thinking otherwise, regardless of their academic and professional accomplishments. Since then, decades of research, conferences and books have addressed this condition and its impact on women.
A 2020 poll of 750 high-performing executive women just below C-level in various industries found 75% had experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. Often, imposter syndrome is an internal experience of intellectual or professional inadequacy — self-doubt resulting in anxiety and a fear of being found out to be a fraud. For women, the biases and stereotypes in the workplace can foster and exacerbate those feelings of not belonging.
The presence of women in the executive suite is still new. As a result, women encounter fewer promotion opportunities, meaning fewer workplace role models to encourage and mentor a surge in the next generation of female leaders. Cultural expectations of women can lead others to question their competence, contributions or leadership, especially women of color. They may suggest an organization only hired certain women to meet diversity requirements, not for their talent. For women who already experience the feeling of being an imposter, these undue assumptions can reinforce that belief.
When normal feelings become limiting
Most of the feelings that come with imposter syndrome are a normal part of anyone's professional career. Major changes like graduating college, starting a new job, or receiving a first promotion can cause us to feel unsure of ourselves or our abilities, uncomfortable or anxious. When I showed up to be named CEO of my company, the chairman of the board had to warn me that I had arrived with my shirt inside out. I was so embarrassed. I couldn't imagine feeling more like an imposter than at that moment.
Of course, I did feel like an imposter again as I confronted new challenges and accomplishments, but with experience and knowledge, that sense of doubt gave way to greater confidence. For most people, these feelings recede as we adjust to our new position or role. For others, imposter syndrome can limit their potential.
Unchecked, imposter syndrome can make people less likely to seek better career opportunities. Those struggling with it can work themselves to exhaustion, trying to keep others from discovering their supposed "shortcomings." Even successes and can accomplishments cause anxiety because it means more work to keep up their facade. Eventually, their negative beliefs and low self-confidence spill over into their everyday mental health, which can result in perfectionism, less productive work and ineffective management.
How we can empower ourselves against it
Rather than "faking it 'til we make it," the key to powering through imposter syndrome and breaking those barriers to our professional growth is through developing confidence. Here are four actionable steps women can practice to combat imposter syndrome:
- The BRA technique: When feelings of imposterdom strike, I remember the acronym BRA and follow three steps — breathe, relax and allow. First, I breathe, which lets me relax, making it easier to allow the world to go on. The BRA technique helps us to be more present and better equipped to listen and understand the realities of the current situation.
- A personal review: Next, root out the cause of the imposter syndrome. Ask questions: What am I doing? What are my ambitions? and; What makes me capable of achieving them? Search for the exact source of those feelings of inadequacy and then assess the reality of those feelings.
- Challenge negative self-talk with evidence: Don't be afraid of examining weakness. Are there areas for improvement? Then, take action to learn more and reduce and eliminate fear. Does the evidence show you are capable? Then, move on with confidence. Recognize and accept what you don't know as an opportunity for continual learning to replace self-doubt with self-belief.
- Affirm: Remind yourself of your accomplishments and that you belong where you are as much as anyone else who has gotten there. We each bring a unique contribution to the table and have a right to be proud of our strengths. We can all accomplish great things when we put in our best effort. Review your growth and achievements and give yourself credit for your success.
For those struggling with imposter syndrome, give yourself some much-deserved grace. Those feelings are normal, and you are not alone. People who think they know everything may not be any more intelligent or capable than someone feeling like an imposter. Talk about your feelings. Look to the advice of a mentor or trusted ally in the workplace. Be transparent with yourself and stay open to learning from others to break through imposter syndrome and reach the heights you were meant to achieve.