Self-doubt, inadequacy, a sense of not belonging — few people expect high-performing and rising businesswomen to experience such feelings. However, all too often, some of the most hard-working, high-achieving, and talented people have nagging thoughts about their worthiness. This experience, known as impostor syndrome, appears despite clear evidence of a person’s success. Rather than enjoying their accomplishments, people experiencing impostor syndrome question if they’ve earned them. Regardless of their excellent qualifications, they feel like frauds.
While anyone can experience impostor syndrome, women — especially women of color — are affected disproportionately. A new KPMG study found that 75% of executive women have experienced impostor syndrome at some point in their careers. Despite this prevalence, women can employ key strategies to overcome this phenomenon and ensure their greatest success in the business world.
The Relationship Between Systemic Sexism and Racism and Impostor Syndrome in Women
It’s not a coincidence that women, particularly women of color, experience higher rates of impostor syndrome than men. A long history of systemic sexism and racism has created a business world that is predominantly white and male.
The Gender and Racial Imbalance in Leadership Positions
It’s easier for people to feel like impostors when they don’t see people who look like them in similar leadership positions.
This has been an ongoing reality for women since they entered the workplace. According to McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace 2020” report, when it comes to senior managerial positions:
- White women hold only 25% of them.
- Women of color hold a dismal 9% of them.
Those numbers become even more striking in the C-suite, with white women holding 19% of those executive positions and women of color holding 3%.
Role models are often key in making people feel like they belong. However, the lack of proportionately distributed leadership positions across all backgrounds makes finding representative role models hard for professional women and professionals from marginalized communities. This perpetuates the impostor syndrome among women, people of color, LGTBQIA individuals, and others.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely make the gender and racial imbalance worse. The impact of the pandemic has hit professional mothers, women in senior management, and Black women in corporate America especially hard. In fact, the McKinsey report found that 1 in 4 women are contemplating an exit from or downshift in their careers. This foretells an even greater gender and racial imbalance yet to come.
Unequal Recognition in the Workplace
In addition to underrepresentation, a lack of acknowledgment can also lead people to experience impostor syndrome. Again, women get less recognition than their male counterparts. The McKinsey report found that organizations promote women at 85% the rate they promote men. For Latinx and Black women, the contrast is even wider. For every 100 promotions achieved by men, Latinx women achieve 71, and Black women only 58.
The report also found that Black women are less likely to feel supported by their supervisors than women or men of other races.
Common Symptoms of Impostor Syndrome
Those who experience impostor syndrome often exhibit common signs.
They Feel Like a Fraud
Despite years of schooling and honing their skills, people experiencing impostor syndrome often feel like frauds. They may attribute their success to chance or luck. Women and people of color might diminish their achievements by wondering if they were diversity hires. Or, they might feel they have somehow managed to trick everyone around them but will soon be found out.
They Lack Confidence in Their Abilities
Impostor syndrome also attacks a person’s confidence in their expertise. Rather than accurately assessing their own abilities and talents, people experiencing impostor syndrome often underestimate how competent, creative, and capable they are. When they secure a job, get promoted, or receive an award, they may think they are unqualified and someone else is more deserving.
Impostor syndrome also makes people feel uncertain about accepting the title they have earned. For example, a person with a Ph.D. may resist the title doctor, or a CEO may not refer to themselves as such because it makes them uncomfortable.
They Devalue Their Worth
Along with undermining one’s own expertise, impostor syndrome causes people to devalue their worth. Rather than charging the fees their knowledge warrants or allowing themselves to receive acknowledgement for their role in a project’s success, they may undercharge or resist any recognition. Impostor syndrome leaves people feeling that what they have to offer has little worth even when the opposite is true.
Tips for Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
Despite the challenges impostor syndrome presents, professional women from all backgrounds can overcome it and rid themselves of its symptoms. Consider the following tips.
Work with a Mentor or Career Development Coach
Mentors and career development coaches are well positioned to help professional women experiencing impostor syndrome. In fact, the KPMG study found that 72% of professional women in senior roles turn to such trusted advisers when experiencing self-doubt.
Mentors and career development coaches help professional women focus on their strengths. While mentors provide guidance and advice about navigating business challenges, coaches offer help with career planning and homing in on talents and attributes. The career planning and resume refining allow professional women to reflect on their accomplishments and more accurately assess themselves. Both advisers cultivate confidence in professional women that aids them in combating impostor syndrome.
Additionally, professional women can discuss their feelings of being an impostor with their mentors and career development coaches. This gives their advisers a chance to point out how and why their doubts don’t align with reality. Conversations that externalize private thoughts and feelings can serve as a powerful tool for dispelling unfounded concerns.
Combat Negative Self-Talk
Much of impostor syndrome manifests as negative self-talk, so professional women must address this habit that limits thinking and stunts growth.
A first step to combating negative self-talk involves developing awareness and mindfulness. Practices such as meditation and breathing exercises can put looping thoughts to rest. Meditation especially helps people observe their thoughts and then let them slip away without internalizing them.
Another strategy to deal with negative thoughts involves cross-examining them. For example, if a professional woman hears herself challenging her capacities and telling herself she doesn’t belong, she can respond with a different type of self-talk. She can present evidence to herself that speaks to all of her abilities and gives specific reasons that outline exactly why she does belong. She then might follow up with affirmative statements to herself such as, “I am the only Black woman in this meeting, and I definitely belong here. The insights I have to share are invaluable.”
Finally, professional women can engage in a practice called “thought stopping.” When negative thoughts begin, professional women can visualize a stop sign that halts the thoughts, or they can picture the negative thoughts as balloons and pop them. After choosing a mental device to stop the negative thoughts, a person can shift to positive and self-affirming thoughts such as, “I am confident in who I am and what I do.”
Engage in Self-Affirming Practices
To defeat impostor syndrome, professional women must find ways to own and internalize their accomplishments. Several techniques can work toward this end.
Writing down achievements can have a powerful impact. Creating an “achievement file” that keeps track of professional milestones, testimonials from clients, and positive performance reviews can remind anyone experiencing feelings of inadequacy of their own worth.
Visualization has the power to build confidence and dismantle impostor syndrome feelings. Professional women can visualize their successful navigation of challenging situations. For instance, they can imagine themselves delivering a stellar presentation, masterfully negotiating a deal, or coolly handling a conflict in the boardroom. Visualization can serve as a mental rehearsal that fosters confidence and silences negative thoughts.
To help themselves own their power and feel more self-assured, professional women can engage in power poses, especially when they are struggling with feelings of impostor syndrome. A study in Psychological Science recently confirmed that getting into expansive poses such as the Wonder Woman pose, standing tall with feet spread apart, elbows pointing out, and hands resting on the hips, can actually make people feel more powerful.
In addition to reviewing notes and saying positive affirmations before entering their next big interview or presentation, professional women can boost their confidence by taking a private moment in their office and assuming the power pose of their choice.