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Why is imposter syndrome plaguing women?

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Imposter syndrome more commonly affects women, particularly in high-ranking positions. The question is why? Barbara Clark addresses the issue.

25th Jul 2022
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Imposter syndrome exists across all genders, although men are less likely to talk about it. However, it is most prevalent amongst women in high-ranking positions. But why?

Imposter syndrome: What is it?

Imposter Syndrome is a phenomenon where someone experiences a persistent inability to believe their success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of their own efforts or skills. It originates from a 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes which focused on high-achieving women. 

It isn’t recognised as a mental disorder and cannot be diagnosed, however, it does exist. Spotting the signs and supporting colleagues displaying them can help to prevent the symptoms from holding them back on development and progression opportunities. 

Who is affected most?

If workplaces are not inclusive and focused on creating belonging for all – not just for white males – then this can create incubator conditions for imposter syndrome to grow. Women, especially women of colour, are put at greater risk due to the way working cultures have formed and the biases that persist within modern workplaces.

A 2019 study of women in the workplace by US organisation Lean In found women are less likely to be hired and promoted into senior positions (for every 100 men promoted and hired to a manager role, only 72 women are promoted and hired). 

Limited opportunities for women to progress, meaning women see fewer people like them in senior roles relative to men, can be a contributing factor in creating an environment for imposter syndrome to manifest. 

What are the signs of imposter syndrome? 

Imposter syndrome can have negative consequences for many. It can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as workaholism, as well as feeling more stressed, lower self-esteem, and engaging in self-sabotage. Imposter syndrome isn’t a recognised mental health problem, but it can affect your mental health – possibly leading to burnout, anxiety and depression.  

Let’s look closer at the examples mentioned earlier. Julie puts herself forward for everything and feels she has to constantly prove herself despite her credentials and experience. This has a direct impact on her physical and mental health, and she is already questioning if this is the right path for her.  

Despite being the most knowledgeable person in the room, Amanda constantly diminishes her own value in front of peers and clients. This results in fewer opportunities presenting themselves to Amanda and therefore holding her back professionally.

Helen is always (unfairly) comparing herself to others which has a huge impact on her confidence. She is always trying to showcase her expertise which results in excessive workload, burnout, and never fully performing at her best. 

Capture moments of self-doubt and how you are feeling at these moments in time. Remember that these are feelings and not facts

Why does it matter? 

Imposter syndrome affects our ability to make sound judgement and decisions. It can also lead to poor mental health causing absence and setbacks which will have an impact on productivity, employee turnover and business performance. 

How we address imposter syndrome?

Thankfully, there are steps organisations and individuals can take to minimise the impact of imposter syndrome on women and others, and ensure it is not a barrier to progression. 

The individual employee: 

1. Identify the signs  

Capture moments of self-doubt and how you are feeling at these moments in time. Remember that these are feelings and not facts. See if there are any patterns when working with certain individuals or in certain situations etc.  

2. Talk about it  

Talk to someone you trust. If your workplace offers coaching or mentoring services, then start here. If not then talk to a friend or contact outside of work. Remember if you experience low moods for extended periods then you might want to talk to your GP. 

3. Dial down your perfectionism  

Easier said than done but think about dialling down your inner quality thermometer to 80% because there is no such thing as perfect. Take your foot off the gas in terms of expectations and agree this with colleagues or peers in advance to take a bit of pressure off.  

4. Reframe your thoughts 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques could help you reframe your thinking and turn negative thoughts and language into positive ones.  

5. Journaling  

Capture your strengths and successes in a journal or diary to help remind you of what you are good at and to help give you confidence and self-motivation especially in times of need. 

6. Learn and repeat 

Learn about what works well for you and what does not and repeat the winning ways whilst always looking at new alternatives or options. 

Organisation and leaders: 

1. Create belonging  

Prioritising creating an inclusive workplace culture where all people feel they can belong will help to prevent imposter syndrome from developing. Do this by ensuring you have strong values that people align with and back this up with role modelling from leaders and managers on the correct behaviours. 

Offer mentoring and coaching as a support to individuals, even if this is not something currently available

2. Talk about it  

Train managers or employee ambassadors on how to have effective open conversations about how employees are feeling to encourage more employees to speak out and discuss challenges like imposter syndrome. Asking coaching questions like, ‘what would hold you back personally from achieving success at work?’ can help to stimulate some of these quality discussions. 

3. Offer support 

Offer mentoring and coaching as a support to individuals, even if this is not something currently available. Ensure team members within your organisations can access further support like employee assistance programmes or therapy. If this is not possible, then signpost employees to helpful resources for more information or to someone they can speak to. 

Interested in this topic? Read 20 tips for tackling imposter syndrome

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