Have you ever felt like an imposter at work? Do you want to learn strategies to help yourself and others feel less inadequate?
I was asked to speak at the Women in STEM Leadership Summit on how to overcome imposter syndrome. My talk covered what imposter syndrome is, why we jump so quickly to blaming the individual, and practical tips on how to mitigate and prevent imposter syndrome. For a quick summary of the talk on Twitter, follow this link. For a detailed recap, read on below.
Note: This is the second in a two-part series about overcoming imposter syndrome. Part one covered what imposter syndrome is and why we need to look at it within the context of the system around us. Part two (below) discusses where our systems come from and how to overcome imposter syndrome.
How did we get here?
With the overwhelming data about double standards and gaps in representation, it can be easy to think that things have always been this way—but when we look at our history, it’s clear that we created this system.
One example is how the U.K. pushed women out of software development, which hurt their entire tech industry. Britain went from leading the way in computing in the 1940s, with code-breaking computers at Bletchley Park helping win WWII, to falling far behind by the 1970s, just a few decades later. As Marie Hicks, a technology historian, documents in the article “How To Kill Your Tech Industry”, this was largely due to the exclusion of women from the industry. As Hicks shows, in the 1940s and 1950s, there were more women in computing than men. At the time, hardware was seen as more prestigious than software. However, software development became more prestigious in the 1960s as computers started to be used more by government and industry groups. As a result, more men started entering the field. Organisations would first have women train the new men before promoting the men over the women. Women were also paid less for their work (IBM measured “girl hours” separately from “man hours” because “girl hours” were less expensive). Women were also actively managed out of the workforce to make way for men.
However, the growing demand for software developers meant that there weren’t enough men to fill the open roles. Despite the demand for labour, and the availability of experienced women who could fill the roles, the government refused to hire women and private industry refused to promote them. Instead, the U.K. decided to invest in centrally-controlled mainframes as a way to reduce the number of software developers needed. This investment came right as mainframes were on their way out—the bigger shift was towards more decentralised computing, rather than more centralised models. The British government and industry eventually withdrew their support for the mainframe in the 1970s, killing off International Computers Limited, which was the U.K.’s last major tech firm.
This is one example of how women have been pushed out of a field—to the detriment of every organisation that needed experienced developers—but we could repeat this story across countries and industries, and for a range of marginalised groups.
We have inherited systems that were designed to benefit some people and to exclude others. While it’s not our fault that we’ve inherited these systems, it is our responsibility to change them if we want to give the next generation something better. Moreover, we know we can change things, because it was humans who set up this system in the first place—we made it, so we can improve it.
It’s more than “Leaning In”
I mentioned Lean In, a book by Sheryl Sandberg about women at work, in part one. As I’ll discuss, Lean In doesn’t solve the issue of imposter syndrome.
First though, I want to note the positive contributions from Lean In. Sheryl Sandberg raised the profile of the conversation about women in leadership, and Lean In brought together great research on the double standards faced by women at work. Lean In Circles have also brought groups of women together around the world to support each other. Sheryl Sandberg clearly cares about how women and other marginalised groups are treated, so this isn’t a criticism of her goals but of her approach.
The main problem with Lean In is that it asserts that things will get better if individual women try harder, but what we actually need is for all of us to come together to change the system. Here are the top 2 problems I see with the Lean In approach:
Lean In assumes that every woman has the same amount of power and influence
Lean In recommends that women negotiate and assert themselves more, but it doesn’t address the fact that this will be received differently depending on the type of woman. A woman who is highly-paid and more senior in an organisation will have much more negotiating power than a woman who is in an entry-level, minimum-wage role. Equally, a woman who is white, straight, and cis (meaning that her gender matches the sex she was assigned at birth) will have more influence than a similar woman of colour or a woman who is LGBTQIA. A woman who doesn’t have a disability or doesn’t have people at home to care for will likely have more time and resources to negotiate than a similar woman with a disability or caregiving responsibilities. (Elizabeth Bruenig, in The New Republic, has a great discussion of how Lean In hurts marginalised women.)
By assuming it’s an individual problem, Lean In ignores the fact that some women will have less influence and fewer resources at their disposal to create change.
Lean In doesn’t address the root cause of the issues—the system
By encouraging each woman to act as an individual, Lean In fails to address the systemic issues that hold women back even when they do ask for more. For example, separate research in the US and Australia found that in both countries, women ask for raises as often as men; they’re just less likely to be given the raise when they ask.
The problem with the Lean In approach is that even if one woman does manage to be successful, that doesn’t change how the system interacts with other women. That means that there’s a duplication of efforts: every woman needs to individually ask for a raise—but the women and the company would save time if, instead, there was a fairer process for setting pay. (For example, using a transparent salary formula like Buffer instead of having individual negotiations with each person.)
Moreover, by encouraging women to act as individuals, Lean In divides us up and actually diminishes our ability to create structural change. To achieve systemic changes, we need a collective effort.
(My critique of Lean In was also informed by Jessie Daniels’s work The Trouble with White Feminism.)
Ultimately, we need to recognise that different women face different challenges and, instead of dividing up and acting as individuals, figure out how we can come together to change the systems that perpetuate discrimination and inequality.
As we saw with the example of women in software development, the barriers aren’t inherent—humans created these problems, which means that we can change them too.
Imposter Syndrome: A Better Way to Respond
Now that we understand how the system works and the problems with Lean In, what’s a better response to imposter syndrome? How can we use our influence in ways that not only address imposter syndrome for ourselves but which will also help change the bigger system?
I recommend three key actions for responding to imposter syndrome:
Look for leverage points
Reframe your character traits
Be an ally
I’ll address each of these in turn.
1. Look for Leverage
It’s daunting to try to take on a whole system—so don’t. Look for leverage points where one small action can have a much bigger impact.
A typical leverage point in a system is to create better feedback loops. (For more about good leverage points, check out the book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.) An example of this comes from women in the Obama administration.
Women staffers found that their voices were being heard less often than those of men—they were interrupted more and weren’t given credit for their ideas. (This isn’t unique to the Obama administration: In part one, we discussed research showing that, across the board, women are more likely to be interrupted than men.) In practice, interruptions can kick off a vicious cycle too—silencing women, thereby chipping away at their confidence, thereby reducing their perceived performance (since humans often—and erroneously—confuse confidence with competence).
To address this, the women staffers created a new feedback loop: Whenever one woman was interrupted, another woman would then interrupt the interrupter, saying that they wanted to finish hearing the first woman’s point, or saying again what the first woman had said and giving credit for her idea. After doing this for a while, Obama and the other men on the team started catching themselves and became more proactive about not interrupting and giving proper credit for an idea. The new feedback loop helped men become aware and change their behaviour.
What are the leverage points in your situation?
2. Reframe your character traits
Lots of advice about imposter syndrome will recommend that you reframe the fears around imposter syndrome into opportunities, and that’s great, but that’s not what I mean here when I talk about reframing.
Instead, I’m talking about how you can reframe your understanding of yourself to account for the system around you. Here are some examples:
Look for double standards: If someone else had done the same work as you, would they be receiving more praise? Remember the research on prove-it-again bias (in part one)? When women—especially women of colour—do good work, people are more likely to say it was because of luck or the team. When men—especially white men—do good work, people are more likely to say it’s because of their competence. Maybe you’re feeling like an imposter because you’re getting less praise for your work than a colleague. If so, it’s possible that your work is just as good, but your team isn’t seeing that because of the bias that exists—in which case the issue isn’t you, it’s the system that teaches people to have bias. The key question to ask here is: “If I were a white (abled, cis, straight, educated) man, what praise would I get for this work?”
Context matters: People from marginalised groups have to learn lots of traits to adapt to an unfair world—so a trait that’s seen as a weakness in one area may be very adaptive in another one. For example, women sometimes get criticised for apologising too much. At the same time, we know that women face a trade-off between being seen as competent or being seen as likeable (what Joan C. Williams calls “The Tightrope”). So the tendency to apologise may have been a woman’s way of coming across as less intimidating (less competent) and therefore more likeable. The key reframing question to ask here is: “Does this trait help me in other situations?”
Understand why: This relates to the last point about context—humans do things for a reason. It may be a reason that made sense in the past but doesn’t make sense any longer, or it might be something that works in some situations and not others, but there will be a reason why we act the way we do. So instead of feeling guilty about how we are, we will be better served if we can become more curious. The good news is that if you learned one way of operating, you can always adapt to a new situation by learning another way. Key questions here are: “Is this something that’s helped me adapt to an unfair world? Are there other behaviours that might serve me better today?”
3. Be an Ally
someone who is working to understand their own privileges and takes action to end oppression
This is one of the most powerful ways to change the system. Even if we have areas where we are marginalised, most of us also have areas where we have advantages that others don’t. For example, I have something called body size privilege, which means that I’m a lower-weight person, so I can act as an ally when fat-shaming is happening. I’m also white, so I can use my voice as an ally to create more space for people of colour.
There are several key ways in which we can act as allies in the workplace:
Value diverse voices: You can interrupt the interrupters, as we saw in the example from the women in the Obama administration. You can make sure that you give appropriate credit for a good idea: often when people from marginalised groups have a good idea, it’s not recognised until someone from a majority group has the same idea, so watch for this and act to counter it. When there’s a cool work opportunity, make sure that your team doesn’t always give it to the same people but instead considers new people—and offer them the opportunity, instead of waiting for them to raise their hand. Take time to mentor under-represented folks in your workplace or your industry.
Create a safe and trusting workplace: You can also use your voice as an ally to step in when people make comments that disparage marginalised groups or diminish their identity. It can be simple as saying, “that’s not cool” or “we don’t do that here.”
If you want to learn more about how you can use your voice and influence to stand with marginalised groups in your workplace or community, check out our services for becoming a better ally or get in touch.
We can do better
Up to 70% of successful people have experienced imposter syndrome, but it doesn’t have to be this way; we can design systems that value people instead of tearing them down.
Moreover, when organisations make the system work better for one marginalised group, it helps everyone. For example, if a company brings in flexible work policies for people with kids, they’re also helping people who experience mental illness.
There are also benefits to the company: When SAP and Microsoft changed their hiring process to work better for people with neurodiversity (with brains that work differently, i.e., because of autism, learning disabilities, etc.), they found that the neurodiverse people who came through their new hiring process had higher retention rates, were excited about different roles from neurotypical employees, and brought skills that others in the organisation didn’t have.
The real question is not whether one person can overcome imposter syndrome; it’s whether we can all come together to create environments where we’re not triggering imposter syndrome in the first place. Once we see the system, then we can change it to make it work better for all of us.
If you want to see the end of imposter syndrome, don’t just lean in to make things better for yourself; work together to create a better system for everyone.