Feeling out of place or out of our depth at work will be a familiar experience to many women. This ‘imposter syndrome’ is distressingly common, with studies suggesting that as many as 75% of female executives have felt like imposters during their careers.
Such studies and the articles they breed tend to dive straight into how we can ‘fix’ this issue and give women the confidence and assuredness they need to keep breaking glass ceilings. But I think differently.
As a recent article in the New Yorker pointed out, feelings of imposter syndrome often aren’t anything to do with being good enough or smart enough. They are much more to do with finding yourself in a situation or system which isn’t supporting you. That might be a work or academic environment, it might be your family environment. The point is that this issue is structural rather than personal. So focusing on how women can ‘overcome’ such feelings puts the focus on them, rather than addressing the environment which could be creating those feelings.
If we really want to tackle the issue of imposter syndrome, we should be focusing on creating work and home environments that support all people, create space for doubt, offer grace around failure, and champion the potential of everyone.
As workplaces and societies face up to this challenge of addressing their role in perpetuating this concept, now also feels like the right time for women to reclaim the term and start using it to our advantage.
I’m a fully paid-up member of the imposter syndrome club. As someone who’s taken a less-than-typical route through the stages of my career, it’s a feeling I very much identify with. Starting out as an office manager, I moved into roles at tech companies, transitioned into operations, and now head up the Newton Venture Program, an organisation working at the intersection of diversity and venture capital. These regular forays into new roles and new sectors (and the addition of the discombobulating experience that is becoming a mum to two tiny humans) meant I frequently felt (and still do feel) at sea.
But instead of letting that feeling paralyse me, I use it to propel me forward.
Because imposter syndrome doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do something, or that you shouldn’t have been appointed to your position. It can simply mean that you’re finding yourself in an environment that’s not necessarily set up to help you feel confident or in control. Likewise, such feelings are also frequently triggered when you’re facing up to something new or unknown – a situation which will stretch your knowledge, skills and abilities.
Being in those situations, and facing up to those feelings, can often mean we’re growing as professionals. This growth might make us feel uncomfortable, but without growth, we cannot progress in our careers.
Now, when I feel the familiar tinglings of imposter syndrome, I reframe my mindset. I think about how that feeling means I have fresh opportunities to learn new things and master new skills; a chance to move forward, beyond my current capabilities. That should be a moment of excitement. It’s how we grow.
I also believe that women who have experienced imposter syndrome make better managers. I’m someone who doesn’t believe they know everything or have every answer. That means I’m listening, learning, and iterating all the time. This approach allows me to meaningfully engage with my team, genuinely hear and consider their ideas, and also show empathy if and when they may be struggling with their own professional challenges. An overinflated sense of confidence in a leader rarely creates a caring and safe environment for staff, meaning female leaders fuelled by imposter syndrome could well be creating exactly the kind of working culture more junior staff need to thrive. By leaning into our own anxieties, we could be unwittingly lessening those felt by the next generation of women.
Women and people of colour are far more likely to feel like imposters are work; this can mean they under-sell themselves at interviews, or are put off from applying for certain roles or promotions. Understanding the role imposter syndrome can play in my mindset means I’m good at spotting it in others and making a conscious effort to ensure the skills and potential of current or prospective hires aren’t adversely affected as a result. This helps level the playing field for diverse talent and ensure our hiring practices reward skills rather than self-assuredness – an example of the structural role employers and workplaces have to play in tackling this issue.
So next time you feel like an imposter at work, remind yourself that it could actually be your superpower – a route towards learning more, managing better, and creating a level playing field – and wear your imposter syndrome with pride. And remember, feeling out of your depth doesn’t make you can’t swim.