An Oscar winner.
An acclaimed author.
The chief of the World Health Organization.
Millions of women in workplaces all over the world right now…
All talented. All successful. All beautiful. And all the victims of imposter syndrome. It’s real and terrifying. Able to stall your career opportunities, create problems where none exist and do a number on your self-esteem.
The issue takes its name from the feeling that you’re an imposter or fraud and that your accomplishments are not good enough, even if that is not the reality of the situation. It’s a problem that plagues women of all talents and disciplines. The fact that actress Kate Winslet, author Maya Angelou and WHO chief Dr Margaret Chan are victims, speaks to the take-no-prisoners approach of the phenomenon.
Other characteristics of the syndrome include shying away from voicing your opinions, taking a backseat when it comes to new projects or promotions and finding it difficult to assume a leadership position. Think of it like this: have you ever had a moment of nervousness before taking the podium to speak, or uncertainty over applying for a job that you really wanted? We’ve all been there, but for many, the condition is so crippling that it actively stops follow-through, creating insecurity that inhibits success and erodes all self-confidence.
Sadly, research shows that women are hardest hit. A study by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women’, published in the 1970s has been validated hundreds of times since. And in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, American writer Dr Valerie Young echoes the sentiment that women have become hardwired to undersell themselves and their achievements.
They’re on to me
The reasons are many. We could blame it on women being inclined to be more self-analytical and to internalise criticism. There are also the real challenges that women still face in the workspace – fewer women in positions of power, women still earning far less than men.
A 2012 survey, published in Forbes and conducted by management consultancy McKinsey, also found that men were 60 per cent more likely to say they were very qualified to run for a public office position than women. The same survey found that women would not apply for a job unless they met 100 per cent of the prerequisites. Men were not as discerning and will enthusiastically apply for a job even if they meet only half of the criteria.
CEO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, devoted a large portion of her book, Lean In, to the idea of women needing to accept their own greatness.
Tellingly, the research from decades ago circles back to the same point today: Imposterism is most prevalent among extremely talented and capable individuals.
Socialisation has a lot to answer for, says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and director at The LightHouse Arabia psychology clinic in Dubai. “In cultures where women are socialised to be more attuned to traditional gender roles, feeling like an imposter in a professional capacity is natural.”
We also cannot discount familial pressure and how it plays into imposterism. Dr Afridi points to other interesting findings from the research of Clance and Imes: women with imposter syndrome tend to fall into two categories. The first category is where women have a sibling who is deemed ‘the smart one’ and the women who have the syndrome get the title of ‘the sensitive one’. Even though the imposter may have amazing academic achievements, the family still holds those beliefs. The second category of imposters is women who come from families who have labelled them as being capable, superior, intelligent, and competent. They are often reminded of how capable and bright they were as children. As they start to mature and they are faced with experiences that they find difficult (that most of us face), they are afraid that they will be “found out” by others as being an imposter and incapable.
“Women have gone on to accept these messages and we are left wondering if we can hack it,” writes Dr Young in her book.
Nor does it help that an enormous volume of those messages is about women fitting a certain aesthetic, which brings its own sub-set of issues to the fore. Factor in all the usual challenges of the workplace combined with imposterism and you have women who are simply unable to internalise their success and feel lacking regardless of their awards, accolades and achievements.
One of the key manifestations here is that women tend to attribute their success to external factors, “Oh it was just good luck!” rather than acknowledge their hard work, talent and skill. One particular study* highlighted this difference when it comes to failures or challenges. Men chalked it up to circumstances outside of their control; women to themselves.
Confidence to fail?
Imposter syndrome has gained so much traction in recent times that it’s become something of a trendy, albeit fundamental, issue to workshop.
In March this year, the Capital Club in Dubai, a private business association, hosted a presentation on imposter syndrome, calling on UK communications expert Lea Sellers to share her knowledge. One of her touch points was to urge women to embrace their skills, without defaulting to the male power setting. “We don’t have to act like alpha males to get what we want,” she said. “Often this can just make the situation more miserable.”
Malikah**, a 31-year-old operations manager, was guilty of this mindset. She worked at an IT company in Dubai for a few years and found herself reacting to the power displays of her male counterparts and her confidence took a huge knock.
“I have never been particularly assertive,” she explains. “Even as a child, I was very quiet and in my family it wasn’t the done thing to boast about your achievements.”
It didn’t help matters, she says, to work in a male-dominated industry. “It was very hard not to be insecure about my abilities because the men I worked with had amazing skills and they were loud and proud of it. I never felt confident and certainly never good enough for my job.”
Malikah goes on admit that in her four years at the company, she didn’t ever apply for a promotion.
One initiative that puts a quirky spin on feeling like a fraud is the Fail Forward conference in Canada. It held its inaugural event this March and more than 200 professionals attended. In just 30 seconds they had to confess their biggest failure – and they did.
The rationale behind the event is to act as a Band-Aid of sorts, and rip the shame off in one fell swoop. The takeaway? Failing is fine. It’s normal. Everyone goes through it. It’s nothing to be afraid of.
Being cognisant of that damaging internal dialogue is also key. “Before you can banish those bad thoughts you must be aware of them. Keep a thought diary,” advises Dr Afridi.
The idea here is to reflect on when and what triggers your insecurities so you know how to work towards silencing that critical voice.
Dr Afridi also makes a case for seeking therapy, specifically cognitive behavioural therapy. “There are cognitive distortions that the imposter has such as discounting the positive or falsely attributing their success to external factors that have been learned and ingrained. A good course of cognitive behavioural therapy can help women become aware of their cognitive distortions and learn ways to challenge them.”
Perhaps the simplest way to banish the imposter in your head? Let yourself be praised! Enjoy your accolades, revel in your successes and regularly remind yourself of achievements. Remember, that voice has no power if you refuse to listen to it.
*Cited in Equity and Justice in Social Behavior (edited by J Greenberg and RL Cohen)
**Name has been changed