More Than A Corporate Buzzword: how Imposter Syndrome is taking over women’s careers

Better the devil you know? No way, says Katie Simpson.

The Managing Director at Hanson Search writes about the impact Imposter Syndrome is having on the female workforce. Katie Simpson

I just can’t do it.

I’m a fraud.

I’ll never make it.

When it comes to our careers, feelings of inadequacy and anxiety can be a typical reaction to growth. For the majority of us, opportunities to progress professionally can result in moments of hesitation before the big leap.

But when those moments aren’t fleeting, aren’t infrequent, and are preventing us from taking the big leap in the first place, it’s a bigger problem. And that problem is disproportionately affecting the female workforce.

Imposter Syndrome. We’ve all heard of it, most of us have experienced it - but for some women moving up in their careers, it’s a central obstacle to landing the roles, opportunities and salaries they’ve worked towards for years, even decades.

In 2011, the International Journal of Behavioural Science suggested that around 70% of the workforce experienced the ‘imposter phenomenon’. But a more recent survey conducted by The Hub Event suggests a more exaggerated figure: 90% of female professionals said they experienced Imposter Syndrome.

Yep. 90%.

It might sound shocking on paper, but after nearly a decade working with male and female talent, it’s an accurate reflection of what I hear and see every day. It isn’t that Imposter Syndrome is a *uniquely* female affliction, but the rationale behind why women say no and fall at the final hurdle rarely has anything to do with a lack of ability.

Application to Offer: Imposter Syndrome is everywhere

Identifying Imposter Syndrome is like identifying a cloud. You may not know the exact name for it, or what it actually means for you - but you know it's a cloud.

It can be a subtle, continuous feeling that drifts in and out. Or it can feel like a cold, hard slap in the face the moment you're faced with a new challenge.

Here's a few ways to pick it out:

  • Believing successes are a result of external factors or 'luck'.
  • Feelings of self-doubt or anxiety about abilities.
  • Overachieving in order to 'prove' oneself.
  • Attributing personal worth with professional outcomes.

For female candidates experiencing Imposter Syndrome, it can impact every stage of their career.

It’s likely you’ve heard at least a version of this quote, but women are far less likely to apply for a job than men, even when they do meet the criteria. Many men view job specs and see all the ways their experience and skills meet the criteria. For women, it can often amplify the experience they don’t have - a constant reminder of ways they ‘fall short’.

According to LinkedIn’s Gender Insights Report, women were found to be 26% less likely to request a referral than men, apply for 20% fewer jobs, and even view less job posts than their male counterparts.

Offer stage provides a particularly striking examination of gendered perspective - particularly in terms of salary. It’s often referred to as the ‘ask gap’: female professionals requesting and expecting less salary from the offset. And there’s findings that back it up.

A study in the US amongst doctors found that women’s ‘ideal’ asking rate was 92% less than a man’s. Recent figures from economics professor, Nina Roussille found that the ask gap was around 2.9%, the gap in bid salaries was 2.2%, and the gap in final offers was 1.4%.

Not a recipe for an equal workplace.

Overcoming *That* Feeling

There's no cure-all to Imposter Syndrome, but there are a few pieces of good advice I've heard and given over the years…

1. Challenge the thoughts. Feelings are valid - but it's important to remember that minds can play tricks. Critically examining these thoughts rather than brushing them under the carpet will help you pinpoint the source and find ways to overcome them. Think back to tangible results you've brought to a role, feedback you've received, revenue generated etc.

2. Write it all down. Or type it or etch it into stone. Recording your achievements and outputs will mean you're not only focusing on them in that moment and letting them sink in, but you have something to look back to during moments of uncertainty.

3. Examine the language you're using. Language recognition has become a huge component to combatting confidence in the workplace for women. I'm talking about the "just checking if…" the "I think" statements, the "no worries if not". Minimising your capabilities without even knowing it starts with how you communicate.

4. Understand the difference between 'fitting' and 'growing'. It's rare that anyone entering a new role will be able to do all of it right away. If that's so, you're overqualified. Starting a new role is designed to be challenging and to build your strengths - it's not a tailor-made opportunity for you to skirt through a business.

5. Return to your career trajectory. Think about everything you'll miss out on if you don't accept. The opportunities, challenges, salary, title, environment. Romanticising your current role is all very well and good, but no matter how fantastic your experience with a business, staying can mean your career stays stagnant.

Now or Never…

If you think that achieving a certain seniority will eradicate Imposter Syndrome, it’s time to stop believing in magic.

A KPMG study found that around 75% of women in exec roles - one or two career steps from C-Suite - have reported Imposter Syndrome. As someone who regularly seeks talent at C-Suite level, I can confirm female professionals at the height of their career talk themselves out of incredible opportunities everyday.

It's a huge obstacle on an individual level, and on a collective level to having more women leaders, COO, CEOs and female-led culture in the workplace.

The important thing is to address it now, whenever 'now' is for you. Whether you're fresh in your career, a few years or a few decades in, tackling Imposter Syndrome is a huge bound towards professional success that few of us talk about or even consider.

Ignoring it earlier in your career will only mean you have to face it later on. There’s no time like the present.

Posted on 20.06.2022

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