Imposter Syndrome, men, and International Women’s Day
This International Women’s Day (IWD), what can women – and men – do to help women who are experiencing Imposter Syndrome?
What is Imposter Syndrome?
If you experience Imposter Syndrome (more accurately known as ‘Imposter Phenomenon’), you can feel like you are not good enough to be in your role at work and are an imposter who does not really belong there. You believe all your successes are just down to things like luck.
Even though on the outside you are performing fairly well, inside you fear being ‘found out’ as being a fraud at any moment.
Imposter Syndrome can make you feel lonely, isolated, and anxious. It also means you cannot truly embrace and enjoy your achievements.
Women and imposter feelings
Both men and women experience imposter feelings, and they do so for a variety of reasons. However, there are additional larger factors at play for women and these are particularly relevant to IWD.
For example, if the society or culture around you is telling you – overtly or covertly – that women are less capable than men, then you are likely to internalise that message on some level. As a high achieving female, therefore, you are more likely to assume you are an imposter and are not really good enough to be so successful.
Or if your work environment is unsupportive of women, it might be hard not to feel like you do not belong there, and that you are an imposter. Maybe you are surrounded by examples of unequal pay, unequal opportunities for progression, or unfavourable approaches to maternity leave etc. Maybe there are a lack of examples of females in leadership positions.
These and a whole host of other messages and practices in and outside of the workplace can contribute to women's assumptions that they must be imposters who do not really belong where they are.
Men lose out too
The thing is, men lose out from all this too, which reminds us that no one truly benefits from this inequity.
As mentioned, a lot of men also feel imposter feelings. Counterintuitively, a dominant narrative that males are supremely capable, confident, and high achieving, can put enormous pressure on many men. They may, understandably, struggle with such high expectations and this can lead to imposter feelings. Not wanting to go against the ingrained narrative, men are less likely to talk about their imposter feelings openly or try to address them. This means many men just keep silent and suffer in silence.
However, if more men spoke up about their own imposter feelings, not only would that help them to feel better, but this would also help women (as well as other men) not to feel so alone in their own imposter feelings, and hence feel a little better overall too.
It goes without saying that men have a crucial role to play in supporting women in the workplace more generally. Men should speak up for women as allies and use their privilege to make work environments more inclusive and equitable. However, we rarely consider how men showing their own vulnerabilities can also make a real difference.
Talk about it
Why does all this matter? It matters because imposter feelings make for miserable employees, affect organisational health and productivity, and one of the best ways to help ease imposter feelings is, yes you’ve guessed it, to talk about it.
Harbouring a secret belief that you are an imposter and do not belong where you are, for any length of time, is stressful. Sharing those feelings aloud with people you trust relieves this pressure, makes you feel better, and can feel empowering because the subtext is ‘I acknowledge that things need to change’.
And the best part is, hearing about your imposter feelings helps your listeners too, many of whom are likely to identify with your experiences. My Imposter Syndrome workshop participants frequently tell me they immediately feel comforted knowing that others feel the same way as they do and that they are not alone. It frees them up to be more open about how they feel, which continues the positive upwards spiral, and makes for a more supportive environment for everyone.
Champion each other
What else can men and women in senior positions do to help ease imposter feelings this IWD?
Remember you are a role model to others and your being open about imposter feelings is likely to help those looking up to you (as well as help you to feel more authentic and empowered yourself).
If you are managing someone with imposter feelings, be specific in your feedback on what you appreciate about them. Rather than a blanket ‘you’re amazing’, try something more focussed such as ‘the depth and clarity with which you explained the issues in the meeting was excellent’.
Consider mentoring someone more junior. Having a mentor to confide in about imposter feelings and get tips from on how to deal with various struggles can be a game changer for junior mentees. If you also experience Imposter Syndrome yourself, as well as helping someone else through your mentoring, it will demonstrate to you just how much you know and have learned over the years.
Happy IWD 2022 everyone - remember to look after each other and lift each other up wherever you can.
Note: If you are suffering from acute levels of anxiety, stress and/or depression, you should also seek specialist therapeutic support such as counselling or psychotherapy.
Nazish Bhaiwala (she/her), Career Coach and Founder of Red Arbre, specialises in helping people to overcome Imposter Syndrome and speaks, writes and delivers workshops on the topic.
In 2018 Nazish carried out a series of interviews of female international human rights lawyers from all over the world about their experiences of Imposter Syndrome. Combining this global scale learning with her own coaching experience means she has an in-depth and unique understanding of Imposter Syndrome and the coaching tools and strategies that can help to overcome it.