Many women experience imposter syndrome. It’s a result of our society’s masculine approach to success.
Examining women’s tendency for imposter syndrome has to start with the term itself. The word “imposter” implies a tinge of criminal fraud. Feelings of uncertainty are a normal part of professional life, but women who experience them are not fraudsters. Who wouldn’t feel a little unsure about taking on a new role or challenge? Perhaps the real imposter is the one who believes that you have to “fake it until you make it”?
Secondly, the undertone of “syndrome” reminds of the “female hysteria” diagnoses which were a common medical diagnosis for women for centuries. The symptoms included anxiety, nervousness, sexual desire, or a “tendency to cause trouble for others”. In fact, these “symptoms” are synonymous with being a normal woman.
Inquiry into the “female hysteria” leads us to the root cause of women and imposter syndrome. The Western corporate culture has been designed by a rather small and homogeneous group of people: white men. Thankfully, this is rapidly changing, but the effects of degrading women (and especially women of colour) for decades won’t disappear overnight. Just being a normal woman came with a medical diagnosis one hundred years ago and it can still be seen as something “less than”.
Understanding trauma response
Most companies don’t understand women’s trauma response caused by the historic discrimination and degoratory behaviour. Many leaders fail to recognise the trauma response and the reasons behind because the wrongdoing happened long “before us”. The company may now do everything “correctly” so why is the trauma response still happening?
This is a blind spot. Leaders might fear that the finger of blame could be pointed at them and dodge the topic. However, it is critical to recognise women’s imposter syndrome as a trauma response. Only then progress can be made. Unfortunately rather than addressing the root cause, companies are spending a lot of money on window dressing.
Women don’t need fixing, workplaces do
This is true. The overtly masculine workplaces caused the problem so let’s fix them first. Companies must make diversity and inclusion an integral part of their strategy. However, fixing cultures takes time and it will be slow to deal with trauma caused by historic injustice changing environment alone.
Companies who leave their inclusion efforts to the “external” changes only travel half way. With “external” we refer to D&I guidelines, governance, processes, policies and training that aim to make the workplace more equitable and fair for women and minorities. All this work can’t, of course, start too soon. It will lay the foundation for a truly equitable working environment.
We recently spoke with a company who’s workforce is perhaps one of the most diverse we’ve come across. Their employees are from 190 different nationalities and over 40% of their leaders are women. Yet, they are struggling to address women suffering from imposter syndrome.
Recognising signs of women’s imposter syndrome
Simply put, women have been told for decades that their ideas are no good and that strategies presented by men are great. Women who wanted to get ahead had to imitate the way men behave, and become “one of the boys”. This will, at some point, become inauthentic and result in women feeling like an imposter or burning out. Alternatively, some women choose to step aside and become invisible in order not to be judged.
Stamp of approval
Women seek to get the approval of the important male figure in their sphere. This can be their immediate boss, the CEO, their colleague or even their grandfather. “Once he knows I’m doing great work I can feel confident about myself.”
Seeking for permission
Many women don’t present their ideas proactively but wait for someone to ask what they have to say. Inviting women to speak up and asking them to share their contribution is a great start but she may still try to say what she thinks the other person wants to hear. Only when women “land” in their own authenticity will they find the courage to share what is truly hiding in their hearts.
Some women may want to show that they can figure things out on their own. They take on a lot of pressure to appear strong and capable in a male dominated environment. Michelle, who was working for a big financial firm, says: “Operating in a very male dominated career, I learnt to “go it alone”. I didn’t think about needing a “tribe”. Joining DrivenWoman’s program has been an eye-opener for me. It has given me the confidence to find my voice and the action steps to build my life on my terms.”
One sign of trying to find a way to “belong” is women’s drive to be perfect. Many women are very hard on themselves. Women will not apply for positions unless they fill absolutely every criteria of the posting and they will over-deliver and over-work their projects to the point of exhaustion. Knowing your stuff is good will help them not to feel like a fraud, but trying to be perfect will also hold them back from doing the work they love.
Retreating into invisibility
Another side of imposter syndrome is that women avoid situations where they could be “seen”. They will not be “found out” if they keep a low profile. This is an ultimate form of trauma response as it will keep the person “safe” from any negativity or criticism. However, if left unnoticed, the world will never know what brilliant ideas that person was carrying inside. Companies are missing out on talent they didn’t know they had.
In our experience based on meeting thousands of women in our co-development groups, a permanent change and transformation happens through “aha-moments”. Women need a safe, non-judgmental space where a story can be told with a group of other women.
The really powerful thing about going through the shared experience is that it impacts directly on women’s positivity and belief in their own potential. Instead of the sense of isolation many may have felt before, they will be inspired by the stories of other participants and will soon notice that the obstacles they thought were unique to them are universal to most women.
Companies who understand imposter syndrome for women as a historic trauma response are able to provide two kinds of solutions: outside in and inside out. Outside in or “external” response is to create workplaces that are welcoming, supportive and safe for women. Inside out or “internal” work includes support for women to discover their authentic self and find their voice.
DrivenWoman is a women’s empowerment company. We provide experiential co-development groups to support women with their goals and aspirations. We work with organisations who are committed to bringing out the best of their female talent.