The problem with imposter syndrome

Have you ever questioned your ability to be in your own job, wondering how on earth you got there?

Do you constantly brush off compliments you receive, never taking the recognition for your own skills or talents?

Do you find yourself worrying that one day you’ll be ‘found out’ – that you’ll be uncovered as being somehow ‘unworthy’ of your job?

You’re not alone. A study conducted by psychologist Gail Matthews suggests that 70% of successful people experience imposter feelings at some point in their life.

Albert Einstein. Meryl Steep. Tom Hanks. Three people that you perhaps wouldn’t have thought of as lacking in confidence, yet all individuals who, at some stage or other, have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’.

The fact is that imposter syndrome can affect any of us at any time.  However, there are three issues that make women’s experience of imposter syndrome potentially far more serious.

Firstly, the evidence suggests that women encounter imposter feelings more frequently than men. A study by Access Commercial Finance found that two-thirds of women say they’ve experienced imposter syndrome at work in the past 12 months. The study found that the male counterparts were 18% less likely to encounter such feelings in the work environment.

The second issue is that women can find themselves having to leave and re-enter the workplace, or take on part time roles – sometimes at a less senior level than were held previously – due to having children or taking responsibility for childcare. Time out of the workplace in itself can have a serious impact on confidence, and by their nature, part time roles can be considered as less important – both by employers and employees.

The third, and perhaps most significant problem, is that the actions that come as a result of ‘imposter’ feelings are particularly unhelpful to the women’s agenda. Let’s explore this…

If you harbour feelings of somehow being inadequate in your job, it’s unlikely that you will put yourself in a position where you could be held accountable or responsible. = Barrier to promotion.

If you lack confidence at work, your default will be to hold back – not contributing or making your opinions known, even when you know them to be worthwhile. = Barrier to promotion.

If you think you don’t deserve to be there in the first place, you will probably accept a job without even attempting to negotiate on pay or package, or not ask for a pay rise or promotion in an existing position. = Barrier to better pay/promotion.

The pattern that emerges here is clear – and unfortunately, has the effect of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy and having the long-term potential of further contributing to the gender pay gap (which, by the way, appears to be getting worse, not better – according to an analysis by the BBC, which found that four in 10 private companies that have published their latest gender pay gap information have wider gaps than they did last year.)  So far from the state of play becoming fairer, it’s actually becoming more unequal.

However, without the confidence in their own abilities, it’s unlikely that women will be able to take the actions needed to make fundamental change.

This is one of the reasons why we’ve recently launched our Change the Culture of Wealth manifesto. Whilst women can – and should – make changes at their own individual level, we believe that the catalyst for real change will only come from collaboration – from the individuals on the ground to the government taking decisive action to change legislation and create a fairer place for both men and women to do business.

Only after this happens in synergy will imbalance begin to be redressed.

You can read our Changing the Culture of Wealth Manifesto here.