From Imposters to Leaders: How To Help Women Break this Barrier to Success

Imposter Syndrome is a significant barrier to career progression and leadership success for female workers. What can your organization do to support women into leadership and overcome this fraud phenomenon along the way?

Office meeting featuring high potential female workers brainstorming with their peers.

Imposter Syndrome in Full Effect 
According to psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance, the term imposter phenomenon “is used to designate an internal experience of intellectual phonies, which appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among high-achieving women.” In 1978, after seeing many of her female students struggle to take credit for their achievements, Pauline and a colleague conducted a study of incredibly successful and capable women, finding that: 
“Despite their earned degrees, scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities, these women do not experience an internal sense of success. They consider themselves to be ‘imposters.’ Women who experience the imposter phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” 
I have spent over 20 years working in strategic career management, talent management, transition and leadership development. As I reflect back on the interactions, coaching, and career sessions I’ve had with many successful women, I realize just how many times I’ve witnessed the imposter phenomenon in full effect. 
Imposter Syndrome in Career Transition  
“Sue” was a very successful senior manager for a large global firm. When I first met her, Sue’s role had been made redundant and her confidence was very low. She presumed that she was a fraud who had been “found out” – a common and uneasy feeling for women, particularly when they are impacted by organizational restructuring. As we continued to talk, Sue revealed her imposter-driven thoughts: 
“I never deserved the role in the first place. I constantly doubted myself.”
It took several coaching sessions and a lot of self-discovery for Sue to understand that she was more than capable in her previous role and, in fact, she had been very successful. Once she understood the magnitude of her abilities, Sue’s confidence started to shine. In the end, imposter-driven thoughts did not prevail. Sue landed a more senior role than her last and received a 20 percent pay increase.  
Imposter Syndrome in Remuneration 
I have coached several women who are independent consultants on how to set a daily rate for their services. It intrigues me that these very successful women over-complicate this process and constantly struggle with defining the right remuneration for their work. Am I asking for too much? Are my skills and services really worth that amount?
Putting a dollar figure to your name, your services, and your business is a difficult task regardless of gender. Yet women have a higher tendency to “under”; underprice services, undermine abilities and underestimate their capability for success. It’s as if these women believe their services to be phony or fraudulent when, in reality, they are genuine and authentic. So, I encourage them to switch to a client mindset and start asking objective questions. What value do my clients get from my services? What is the going market rate?
Just recently I was discussing rates with a woman looking to build her client base, but she struggled to see past the wall she had built with self-doubt: 
“This is a new client. I really don’t want to be too expensive because they might not have me back.” 
My response? If you underrate your services and the value you offer, they won’t want you in the first place.
How Your Organization Can Break the Imposter Barrier 
In 2011 the Institute of Leadership & Management conducted a survey on ambition and gender at work. It was aimed at identifying the hurdles women face when it comes to their career path. A crisis of confidence among female managers was revealed, with over 70 percent of male managers reporting high levels of self-confidence, compared with less than 50 percent of women. Additionally, more than half of women managers admitted to feelings of self-doubt in the workplace. 
As an organization, talent is your differentiator. Your competitive advantage is your people, but only when they are working to their full potential. It’s not who your employees are that holds them back in the workplace, it’s who they think they are not. When self-doubt, lack of confidence, and imposter-driven thoughts begin to impede that potential, then the success of your company suffers as a direct result. So what can you do? 
Start Talking 
Embedding Career Conversations into your organization gives your people a platform to speak openly and inspires them to take charge of their careers. In fact, respondents in a recent Right Management survey reported that regular Career Conversations would make them more likely to engage with their work, share ideas, and look for career growth and longevity in their current organization. 
It is no secret that this fraud phenomenon is most common amongst high-achieving women. Having candid and real Career Conversations with these top performers acknowledges their value to the organization, breaking the self-doubt barrier. Such conversations also help to establish personal aspirations, encouraging career progression and leadership potential. 
If you are in a leadership position and are not giving your women workers a chance to voice their imposter-driven thoughts, then you are strengthening the barrier. How can women gain perspective and see how limiting their negative thoughts are if they never have the chance to say them out loud? 
And Talk Openly 
Every time one of your female employees talks about her career aspirations and potential self-doubts, she is opening up. She is becoming vulnerable. And most importantly, she is trusting you.  
In these intimidating situations, there is nothing more refreshing than having a leader you can relate to – a leader who is not afraid to be human, be open, and talk about their imperfections and fears. Even Maya Angelou, arguably one of the best authors of our time, has admitted that each time she published a book she thought she was going to be “found out.” 
As a leader, allowing yourself to be genuine and transparent in these conversations will encourage your employees to do the same. And building that kind of mutual trust can open new doors and new opportunities – for women and for the organization.   
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