If you’re a woman interested in investing in your own professional growth, you’ve probably attended at least a handful of career development conferences, most of which probably centered around a talk about imposter syndrome in the workplace as part of that event. But in a world where two little words can have so many meanings, what exactly were you told in those sessions? And why does imposter syndrome only ever seem to come up in a room full of women?
Imposter syndrome – loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud while fearing others will discover the same about you – is frequently referenced as a reason why women doubt their professional success. The syndrome intensifies when women are poised to take on a stretch role and is the reason women often resist growth assignments.
From the first psychological study on this phenomenon in 1978, thought leaders, researchers, and speakers have offered up every solution under the sun to women who feel they are experiencing this. But what’s less discussed is why imposter syndrome exists in the first place, and what role the workplace plays in fostering this thinking.
Case in point: what if imposter syndrome isn’t rooted in the individual women but in the lack of gender parity that exists in the office?
Same Doubts, Different Responses
I would argue that the reason there are such few women at the C-level IS that the imposter syndrome causes women to hemorrhage out of the talent pipeline.
Let me explain.
Imposter syndrome causes individuals to doubt their own capabilities. It surfaces typically in moments of celebration or promotions; individuals feel they have fooled others into believing they were more competent than they actually are. While men and women can both experience this, the responses to these emotions, both internally and externally, are incredibly different.
When men experience imposter syndrome, they may act as though they don’t, following the “fake it until you make it” mindset. Since men often get more career guidance and feedback from peers and supervisors that prepare them for larger roles, they can navigate these feelings more successfully. Additionally, men often have relationships that support them navigating this period of adjustment successfully.
Since men often get more career guidance and feedback from peers and supervisors that prepare them for larger roles, they can navigate these feelings more successfully.
This level of companionship and camaraderie trickles down through the workplace. An entry-level employee just starting out under the mentorship of a mid-level supervisor is going to experience that same level of implicit mentorship. He is also more likely to get aspirational feedback and career guidance than a female coworker and has the benefit of gender privilege on his side when it comes to navigating promotions and workplace conflicts alike. As such, they are more likely to respond to imposter syndrome with bravado and false confidence while also seeking support from coworkers and supervisors.
On the other hand, women experiencing imposter syndrome often feel unworthy and self-critical, and often attempt to sabotage their career trajectory by openly rejecting or resisting promotions because they don’t feel as though they have all the right credentials. I’ve seen it time and again: a woman is offered a senior position she is more than qualified for due to her years of work at a company, only to turn it down because she doesn’t feel she fits the bill exactly.
This is compounded by the fact that the feedback women receive is often transactional, such as a work review or performance evaluation, instead of aspirational guidance. Women are far less likely to receive any kind of mentorship or developmental guidance as they prepare for future roles and the result? A C-suite full of men, and women who continue to sell themselves short.
The feedback women receive is often transactional, such as a work review or performance evaluation, instead of aspirational guidance.
To make matters worse, as this cycle continues, even women who aspire to one day be promoted to a certain level or tackle certain responsibilities will find themselves without a mentor at the level to which they aspire. While networking opportunities for women do exist, they are very rarely formed naturally in the workplace, which only causes female employees to suffer. They spend so much time questioning if they’re on the right track or making the right progress that they are rarely able to seize the professional opportunities available to them – in fact, they don’t even recognize them at all!
So how do we break the cycle of imposter syndrome and enable women to stop sabotaging their careers? It starts at the top.
What Can We Do?
Navigating feelings of imposter syndrome is never easy, and it’s something that none of those women-in-the-workplace conferences ever seem to cover. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the challenges imposter syndrome presents, there are a few action items that you can implement – and encourage others to implement – to set a great example for womenkind.
Build Strong Relationships
Feedback and insight are crucial to career growth, and women are certainly just as entitled to that as men are. These relationships – whether with another woman in your company or someone in your industry – provide crucial support as you navigate career transitions. They can not only be a source of feedback and guidance, but also a source of truth.
Adopt a Curious Mindset
Meet with your boss. Meet with your boss’s boss. Sitting down with key individuals and organizational influencers is the perfect way to gain an understanding of your organization’s goals and objectives as it relates to different levels of leadership in your company. Not only will this equip you to identify ways your expertise and talent can be leveraged for your own career growth, but it will also allow you to quiet that little voice in your mind that screams how you’re not good enough for this promotion or that project. If you have all the data in front of you of what a job entails and how one would excel in a certain role, then you can recall that the next time doubts come creeping in. Logic is a great tool in the battle against imposter syndrome.
“I want my work to speak for itself.”
How many times have you said that? I often hear women say that they want their work to speak for themselves in order to skirt around the uncomfortable concept of self-promotion. This often leads to women being in roles in which they are functionally competent, but not passionate about. When you choose to be curious about how your skills and talents can make an impact, you will automatically gain insight into opportunities simply because you’ll be looking for them!
When you choose to be curious about how your skills and talents can make an impact, you will automatically gain insight into opportunities simply because you’ll be looking for them!
This intentionally also includes your thoughts and mindset. How do you view your work? Do you subconsciously see your contributions as less important than your male colleagues? These subtle thought shifts can make all the difference when it comes to tackling the internalized emotions that come along with imposter syndrome. Even as you work outwardly to self-promote and build relationships, also examine how your own mind could be fooling you into selling yourself short.
Fix Gender Parity, Not Women
While tackling imposter syndrome is easier said than done, it’s not impossible – and no one should ever tell you so. Representation matters, and as long as companies continue to be male-dominated at the C-level, there will never be an end to imposter syndrome. In addition to seeking out mentorship, building strong relationships, and being intentional with how you choose to build your career, think critically about the ways gender parity impacts how you maneuver through the workplace.