How imposter syndrome hurts women leaders
It's common to feel a sense of doubt when starting a new role or opportunity. Questions like "Do I really deserve this?" or "Will I do well?" often arise. However, for many women, these doubts can develop into imposter syndrome, a persistent feeling of being a fraud and undervaluing their own contributions.
Research has shown that this phenomenon is a symptom of a larger issue, in which women consistently underestimate their abilities and worth. In this article, we explore the effects of imposter syndrome and offer strategies for overcoming it.
Imposter syndrome was first used in the late 1970s to describe high-achieving US women with a secret sense that they were not as capable as others thought. Psychologists Pauline Rose Lane and Suzanne Imes developed the concept, initially termed the imposter phenomenon, in their 1978 founding study, which focused on high-achieving women. They posited that despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments. Women who experience the imposter phenomenon, believe that they are not bright and have befooled anyone, who thinks otherwise. As per the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, imposter syndrome is not a mental health disorder. The estimate is that 70% of people experience at least one episode of this phenomenon at some point in their lives.
An HBR report says women feel imposter syndrome more than their male counterparts, primarily because of gender biases and prejudices. In fact, as per the KPMG study, in 2022, 75% of female executives across industries have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers.
Early childhood and upbringing: Our mental model amalgamates nature and nurture. The mental model shapes our beliefs, motives, fear, attitude and values. In many cases, feelings of imposter syndrome can be traced to early family or school dynamics when they receive mixed messages about competency and individual achievements. It begins as early as when girls are six. They stop believing they are smart, while boys continue to think their gender is gifted. As women get older, these stereotypes discourage them from pursuing careers that are supposed to be high stakes.
Imposter syndrome is contextual: Workplace and culture impact women experiencing imposter syndrome. First, the lack of inclusion in the workplace, micro-aggression, and not receiving appreciation and recognition can be a reason for imposter syndrome. Second, the hiring and developing nuances within the organisation can make a woman experience self-doubt. The unconscious bias during hiring leads women to question their competencies. Third, the assessment and evaluation of women for promotion-stretched assignments or challenging projects. Research suggests that women are assessed based on performance and not potential. The latest MC Kinsey and Leanin.org research findings indicate that out of every 100 men getting promoted from entry-level to first-time people manager, only 87 women get promoted. Women often receive generic feedback on their performance and readiness, adversely impacting their self-belief.
Self-efficacy: Bandura, in 1977, first discussed self-efficacy. One's belief in one's ability to succeed and attain a given level of performance Self-efficacy is described as one's belief in one's ability to grow and achieve a given level of performance. Self-esteem is about one's perception of her worth, not just capabilities. According to research in self-efficacy scales, men tend to inflate their abilities while being much more modest in their assessments. The messages and remarks to women like - your good looks dominate your capability, skills, or intelligence. They may get a job or role, but climbing the ladder will be difficult. Tagging women like the second bread-earning person in the family underestimates her ambition and drive to be achievement-oriented. Women who cannot achieve career goals receive feedback emphasizing a lack of self-confidence. Instead of leveraging on their strengths, they need help to overcome their weaknesses leading to low self-efficacy.
A constant need for external validation: Women with frequent imposter syndrome tend to seek confirmation from others, respond sensitively towards criticism, contemplate their performance, and be overly consumed by mistakes. They feel a strong need to build and reinforce their achievements and recognition and not justify it because they are fortunate, chosen, or have reached a certain level because they are women. Even if they are self-aware, they look and get influenced by meta perception. Meta perception is the ability to predict how others see us correctly. When women undervalue how others view their contributions, they may unintentionally hold themselves back. While women seek external validation, they take feedback at heart and not at face value. It is essential to be mindful that we cannot take everyone's input and all the feedback at heart. They are over-dependent on others' views to construct their self-concept. In general, we look at three kinds of information- How we see ourselves, how others see us, and the comparisons we make with others. While men emphasize their self-views and social comparisons, women consider how others see them. Women also see few women at the top, which further builds up their apprehensions if they deserve to go up the ladder, and whether they will even be able to make it.
Not being authentic: There is research stating that if a female leader believes that others don't value her, she becomes more conscious in taking critical decisions like applying for a senior role, putting herself forward for promotion, and asking for a raise. Women experiencing imposter syndrome use coping and protective mechanisms like overpreparing for the meeting or assignment, excessive procrastination, not attempting challenging jobs, being hesitant to take out projects, and not speaking up, asking questions, or saying even when they know they are right.
Adversely impacting confidence and performance of women: Women experiencing imposter syndrome have to deal with professional anxiety, which spills over into their day-to-day mental health. They experience anxiety, stress, lack of sleep, and competence to focus and perform. Constant war and internal self-talk regarding lack of capability and self-doubt lead to stress. Sheryl Sandburg writes that men apply to a job when they are only 60% qualified, while women believe they have to be 100% eligible to apply.
Imposter syndrome leads to anxiety which is sabotaging at times. Instead of externalizing situations fairly, women take everything on themselves and operate from an internal locus of control. Doubt and stress from imposter syndrome can hinder their career trajectory.
At an individual level, women need to strengthen their self-belief, conviction, and confidence by leveraging their strengths and working on their developmental needs. In addition, one needs to embrace vulnerability to accept her own identity. Finally, at an organisational level, there is a need to build and strengthen inclusive workplaces and enhance belongingness so that women can be authentic and not judged for who they are and what they experience.