Why tackling imposter syndrome is key to increasing female representation

The lack of female representation at C-suite level was in the news again in the last few weeks with the Hampton-Alexander Review highlighting that more needs to be done across the FTSE350 to increase the number of women in leadership roles. To address this imbalance, organisations often focus on programmes for women and on fair and transparent selection and equality of opportunity. While these are laudable initiatives, imposter syndrome is, in my view, a significant factor as to why women do not push themselves for the promotion they deserve. If we, as HR professionals, recognise the signs of imposter syndrome in our female colleagues, we can offer appropriate support to empower them to realise their potential.

According to a study published in The International Journal of Behavioural Science, 70% of women and 50% of men experience imposter syndrome, feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness, particularly in the workplace. Imposters feel like a fraud, as if at any moment their boss and colleagues will realise that they don’t actually know what they’re doing. And it’s debilitating.

Imposter syndrome expert Dr Valerie Young has identified five facets of this phenomenon:

  1. The perfectionist

The perfectionist sets herself impossibly high standards and achieving anything less makes her feel like a fraud. Because failure is scary, perfectionists will procrastinate, rushing a task once the deadline is looming, potentially making unforced errors. Unsurprisingly, perfectionists find it hard to trust others and will either micromanage them, or not delegate at all. This can be career-limiting as an individual climbs the career ladder and needs to demonstrate leadership qualities.

We can help perfectionists to recognise their achievements and be kind to themselves by appreciating that to err is human and that it’s not the end of the world.

  1. The expert

The expert tells herself she needs to know everything about a task before she can tackle it, otherwise she may be exposed because she “should” have the answer to any question she is asked. Of course, we can never know everything and endeavouring to cover all the bases is exhausting and time-consuming. Women may hold back from speaking in meetings or find ideas they are mulling over being expressed by others first. This will feed into their feelings of inadequacy and they won’t showcase their abilities and potential.

We can support experts by helping them to get comfortable with uncertainty and asking for help, as well as having them see how successful people learn from their mistakes and move on.

  1. The superwoman

The superwoman works harder and longer because she feels she isn’t as good as her colleagues and has to push herself just to keep up. Clearly, it’s not possible to continue working at this pace without damaging our physical and mental wellbeing. My coaching clients often tell me they are thinking of taking a less stressful role where they don’t have to work such long hours, rather than go for promotion. This means organisations are losing female talent before they reach the senior echelons.

We can support superwomen by ensuring they get clear, timely feedback, that they internalise praise and see developmental comments as learning opportunities rather than criticism.

  1. The natural genius

This imposter believes she should be able to master things first time around. Similar to the expert, she should know it all, but the natural genius needs to be able to do things immediately to prove she’s not a fraud. Such women are less likely to push themselves for new responsibilities outside their comfort zone, thereby missing out on opportunities to demonstrate their creativity, initiative and flexibility.

We can help the natural genius appreciate how others learn, that they make mistakes and practise the skills they want to master.

  1. The soloist

Finally, the soloist views asking for help as a weakness because, if she were good enough, she wouldn’t need to. She prefers to do things on her own and, if she doesn’t succeed, you may never even know she tried, but she will still suffer the negative emotions of failure. Taking this uncollaborative approach, she may not demonstrate her potential as a team player, or her courage to try new things.

Our role can be to help the soloist understand how we all see things differently and that, by seeking assistance, we offer ourselves perspective and find short cuts to delivering a great piece of work.

If we recognise the outward signs of imposter syndrome, we can suggest tailored coaching and mentoring to help women get over what can be a crippling lack of confidence. Acknowledging the existence and impact of imposter syndrome is the first step businesses can take to help female talent realise they are not alone and that there is a safe place for them to discuss their fears. If our future female leader can address her imposter syndrome early in her career, she can then channel her energy into more productive career-enhancing activities.

Paula McMullan is an executive coach and lawyer who  helps lawyers who want more fulfilment from their work, more energy for what’s important to them and more power to propel their career forward by coaching them to feel more empowered.  Feel free to email her – paula@lawyerscoach.co.uk

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