The following numbers are well-known facts: women are underrepresented in senior and strategic management positions. This is all the more true in STEM and tech-related fields. Undoubtedly, the change lies in the approach to women in our society as a whole. However, changes can and should be made on the individual level. On this individual level, one of the things that hold back many women from achieving their dream careers is the imposter syndrome.
Cambridge Dictionary defines imposter syndrome as ‘the frequent feeling of not deserving one’s success, and being of failure despite a sustained record of achievements’. This affects both one’s personal and professional life. For the latter, it frequently leads to downshifting: not asking for a promotion and a pay rise. Female Techpreneur brings you tips on how to overcome imposter syndrome and a unique insight into the world of women in tech with its special challenges.
How do I know that I struggle with imposter syndrome?
While it is not uncommon to occasionally experience self-doubts, imposter syndrome triggers recurrent, persistent, and overwhelming feelings of self-doubt. One of the recurrent doubts is the belief that you have achieved something due to luck or hard work, not because of your general intelligence. You might believe that you are a fraud and often fear that others will be disappointed if they discover the ‘real’ you. With this mindset, you are uncomfortable accepting praises and compliments.
Imposter syndrome is tightly related to the concept of the inner critic. Tanya Geisler, a leadership coach specialised in helping women overcome imposter syndrome, points out that ‘inner critics come from outer critics, seen and unseen.’ Maybe your family did not acknowledge your achievements, maybe your parents labeled your as the smart and talented girl and you feel under constant pressure to prove it, maybe your target at school was to get the best marks and every mistake was seen as a failure or you are wondering why your manager did not offer you a promotion this time. Subconsciously, our inner critics persistently use judgements of our outer critics against us.
Consequently, inspired by criticism voiced by people that we value, we conclude that to be loved, one must be successful. In that sense, our self-worth is tied to achievements. Based on this belief, people facing imposter syndrome tend to perfectionism because an error is believed to be a sign of their fraud. You will not raise your voice in a meeting, ask questions, or defend your argument because your colleagues might discover your ‘real’ knowledge.
Furthermore, they tend to be workaholic because their belief tells them the only way to achieve is har work, not their talent and intelligence. You might fear asking for help, which you believe is a weakness. Conversely, the inner critic argues with us if we have learnt something which required a significant amount of time and effort because others could have achieved the same due to their intelligence. You might believe that you need all the knowledge to be an expert or to do this job.
Hopefully, it starts to become clear that these goals to satisfy your inner critic based on perfectionism, workaholism, and self-worth tied to achievement are not realistically achievable. On the bright side, imposter syndrome often strikes high-achieving people and those who seek the development of new skills and projects. Therefore, the setting is important. The feelings of self-doubt are increased whenever your intelligence and skills can be challenged. This means that you are developing new skills that might expose areas that need improvement, who everyone with a growth mindset has.
How to challenge imposter syndrome in STEM and Tech?
Imposter syndrome is tied to the belief that one is inadequate, fraud, and does not belong in a group. Unsurprisingly, people who create a minority in a group might tend to develop self-doubt more easily. If they stand out, they might feel self-conscious and experience self-doubt because it is easily justifiable for their inner critics that they do not belong there. If you believe that you do not belong somewhere, you might convince yourself that it is only luck, connections, or help from others that get you your current position.
Maybe they were looking for a woman or included you to increase ethnic diversity. Therefore, you might fear that your colleagues will eventually discover that you are not smart, qualified, or experienced enough. To stop these doubts impacting your effectiveness at work and stress levels, it is beneficial to stop projecting your self-doubts as other people’s thoughts.
Most likely, you were employed because of your skills, intelligence, and experience. Equally, your colleagues value you as a team member because of your personality and assets that you bring to the team even if you expect them to judge you because of your gender and ethnic background. Everyone has the right to be where they are and move from there in their chosen direction.
You will make a positive change for you and others in your team if you begin to believe that you, and more generally women and women with ethnic background, deserve to be part of the team. You become a role model and a source of inspiration for girls who are thinking if women are good enough to study STEM subjects and other women working in tech.
Finally, reject the thought that any failure is unacceptable. Developing and supporting no-blame culture in your team and company will increase innovation, give you the freedom to experiment and to challenge set rules and routines.
How do I overcome it?
Imposter syndrome causes stress, anxiety, and might lead to depression. Consequently, you might tend to seek short-term pleasure in addictive substances such as sugar, alcohol, or tobacco. Being over-prepared for projects and working long hours will eventually decrease your effectiveness at work. To hide your fraud of being at your position, you might feel alone and isolated in your team. If you fear that errors will demonstrate a potential lack of intelligence, you might be reluctant to try new things and procrastinate more often. To avoid the negative impact of imposter syndrome, it is essential to challenge the emotional response with a rational one.
If you feel not worth or qualified enough to be in your position, Carol Goerner suggests keeping an accomplishment journal. Firstly, you will collect facts about yourself and list your accomplishments. Facts such as degrees and development courses are easily written down. Focus equally on how you help people and how do you make people feel. Overcoming imposter syndrome is based on defining yourself and your personal worth without relying on external judgements, however, if you struggle to write your achievements and unique skills, ask your friends what would they tell about you, see matches with your notes and think about what you have not mentioned. After the initial work, write three achievements every day into your journal. These will be small things which will remind you of your personal worth.
The rational evidence you have collected will be an invaluable source to challenge your inner critic. Have you ever thought about how you talk with yourself? In an imaginary scenario, would you tell your colleague, who is nervous before a presentation, that they are ‘stupid and not worth of being here’? Practice mindfulness and self-compassion when you talk to yourself because your inner critic has access to you 24/7.
You might feel alone in your struggle. Research conducted by the International Journal of Behavioural Science in 2011 reveals that 70% of us have felt like an imposter at some point. Feel free to express your fears because people in your life want you to succeed. Let them help you.
It is vital to develop a healthy comparison with others on social media. While you might find enriching career paths, development courses, articles, and books that others share on social media, the virtual persona you follow is a revised version of a more nuanced reality. If you tend to exaggerate everyone else’s accomplishments and downgrade your ones, consider limiting the use of social media for a certain amount of time.
On a final note, imposter syndrome is connected to confidence. Remember that confidence is a skill that can be improved due to proactive everyday work. It is not easy to overcome imposter syndrome, however, if you develop daily a personal definition of self-worth, you will be able to exchange feeling imposter with being confident.
Carolyn Goerner, Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.
Molly Campbell, Feeling Like a Fraud: Impostor Syndrome in STEM.
Gill Corkindale, Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.
Tania Geisler, The 12 Lies of the Imposter Complex.
Valerie Young, The Secret Thoughts Of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Publishing Group, 2011).
Emira Mears, Lauren Bacon, The Boss of You: Everything A Woman Needs to Know to Start, Run, and Maintain Her Own Business (Seal Press, 2008).
Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (WH Allen, 2013).
Quotes for social media:
Tanya Geisler: ‘Be sure to pause and celebrate your success. The hard conversation, the win, the tenacity, the resilience. All of it. Celebration is what truly conditions us for MORE.’
“Embody what’s already here and authentic for you” isn’t quite as catchy as “fake it ‘til you make it’, but it’s still the truth.
Lauren Bacon: ‘I don’t have an inner critic. I have at least ten of them.’
Sheryl Sandberg: ‘There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.’