I think I can trace my feeling of being an imposter back to primary school: I was five, I had just been moved up a level in the reading group streams and I have a strong memory of sitting there thinking: “any moment now, they are all going to work out that I don’t belong here, I don’t know what I am doing and I am going to be asked to leave”.
Fast forward 30 odd years and I am sitting in my first partners meeting and while the team members are more mature and the subject matter is (usually) more sophisticated, the feeling of being an outsider on the brink of being caught out is the same.
When I was five I assumed that by the time I had become a “grown up”, all those anxieties would go away, that I wouldn’t have to pretend because I would be confident in my knowledge and the place I had earnt in any group. But if anything, it may have gotten worse; it can be easier to feel like more of an interloper the more senior you get and, frankly, the more you stand out because of a lack of diversity at senior levels.
And of course, as many will know, there is an unwritten rule about imposter syndrome: you don’t admit to feeling like an imposter because then you run the risk that the scales really will fall from your colleagues eyes, they will lose whatever imagined confidence they had in your ability and you will be defenestrated. So there is an additional sense of isolation that accompanies feeling like an imposter.
But over my career, I started to notice the whispers after meetings and unofficial comments made in appraisals and realised that this phenomenon was far more common than I thought. And, while accepting that this is a sweeping generalisation not made with the benefit of having formally surveyed my colleagues and peers, anecdotally it appeared to be far more common among women (more on that below).
My own view is that the challenge of addressing gender balance and other diversity issues at senior levels in city firms (and more widely) is complicated, societal (and not limited to those organisations) and not capable of being solved by one sweeping change; but it is capable of being solved. One small part of that solution is tackling the risk that women get so swept up by the feeling of being an outsider and the accompanying isolation that they don’t put themselves forward for promotion and, if they do, they don’t perform at their best.
I also think we need to be careful not to confuse imposter syndrome with women having a confidence issue; it takes a great deal of confidence to break into a new group, to put your views forward and to disagree with the norm but if you feel like a giraffe talking to a room full of rhinos you are never going to get past the feeling of sticking your neck out.
So (and at the risk of feeling deeply unqualified to comment on this phenomenon and being busted as a fraud) here is my tuppence worth on the topic:
- Women may admit to feeling like an imposter more quickly than a man but I would bet my bitcoin that men feel it too; one of the most senior and respected senior male partners in my firm once told me that he gets to the end of every week and sighs with relief that he hasn’t been fired for being a fraud. Who knew? Ladies we are not alone;
- You aren’t promoted to a more senior role or asked to contribute to a different group because you already know what you are doing but because you have the potential to learn; I didn’t go up a level in the reading group because I could already read the books they were studying. So, it is ok to ask questions and learn on the job – that doesn’t make you an imposter;
- Being an imposter might be a good thing – with all the discussion about how diversity of views and risk appetite at board level might avoid ‘group think’ and bad decision-making, maybe bringing the outside view to the table is a good thing;
- We need to talk about this in our organisations – in appraisals, in one to ones, mentoring sessions, amongst our peers, in our internal networks and external ones. Knowing that others feel the same is empowering and done early enough can help change an individuals career trajectory;
- The reality is that by the time you feel comfortable, when you think you know everything, that you are fully accepted by the group and are no longer an imposter, the chances are it is time for you to move on to the next challenge.
About the author
Emma Sutcliffe joined Simmons & Simmons in 2005. She was made a partner in 2015, while on maternity leave. In 2008, she joined the firms Women’s Network, The Number One Club (TNOC) upon its creation and is now one of the co-Chairs of the network, which celebrates its 10 year anniversary this year.
As a partner within the financial markets litigation group of our international dispute resolution department, she has acted on a range of major investment banking disputes on both the financial markets and retail banking side and has advised large UK and foreign investment and retail banks, as well as other major financial institutions, on a wide range of issues. In particular Emma has extensive experience of contentious financial services work, including experience of regulatory investigations, enforcement and disputes, in particular involving the FCA where she spent a year on secondment in the Enforcement and Markets Oversight team.
Emma works full time but often remotely and flexibly, primarily to accommodate commitments to her two young children.