Imposter Syndrome: Companies Must Take Ownership

February 8, 2021
by Lori Lennon

Photo of an empty meeting room lined with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash.

Do you remember that Always commercial, “Like a Girl”? I find myself thinking about it when I’m a part of conversations about imposter syndrome. To me, this ad highlights how society’s beliefs about women and girls begins to shift as we seek advancements and positions of power. These “roles” women are placed into usually have nothing to do with supporting women, but rather are used to make other people feel comfortable about themselves and their place in a company or organization.

The Imposter syndrome theory has been around since 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. This is expressed as having feelings of self-doubt that persist, no matter where you sit on the ladder of success. In their research, Clance and Imes theorized that women are uniquely affected by impostor syndrome.

Famous and highly successful people have talked about suffering from feelings of inadequacy at moments in their lives, such as Michelle Obama, Tina Fey, Penélope Cruz, and Selena Gomez. It is estimated that 75 percent of female executives feel this way. If you are a woman, you have most likely been a part of a training, workshop, or summit about this subject. I, for one, attended many in my time.

Contrary to what many believe, Imposter syndrome doesn’t necessarily mean low self-esteem. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women. Through discussions with many women, especially in science, the idea of imposter syndrome is heightened due to the standards that are placed on them in the workplace.

More often than not, there are only a few women in the room helping make decisions, and that number decreases for women of color. These women are oftentimes held to standards that demand perfection, because, whether we like it or not, in many scientific organizations and institutions, women are still being asked to prove they belong in the room. In addition to these unrealistic standards, women are oftentimes volunteering more, serving on more committees, mentoring, and, if she has a family at home, she is usually bearing the brunt of most of the child-rearing responsibilities at home. How is this sustainable?

This weight is felt and understood by women. It leads us to make sure we’re prepared for anything before presenting, double and triple-checking qualifications before applying for jobs or starting a business, checking countless boxes before running for office, and in science, imposter syndrome has been credited to the “leaky pipeline” for women pursuing STEM careers. In a recent survey taken by its membership in 2020, the US-based Association for Science cited the barriers that female STEM leaders encounter were cultural issues, ideas or work being credited to men, feelings of inadequacy leading to fear of being called a fraud.

There are a few things you can do to help combat imposter syndrome for yourself, but I’d like to focus on what companies can do to help support the women within their organizations.

It’s time to change the narrative.

I was on a call where leaders of an organization commented that they offer many opportunities for women to take the leadership roles on key research projects, but women rarely step up and volunteer themselves, so these roles end up being taken by men. This kind of language continues to place the burden on women who, as we’ve already established, have a good few barriers to overcome already.

Here’s how this statement should be reframed: Women are not taking on leadership positions within our organization, despite these opportunities being presented to them. What can we shift within our structure to provide the support women need to take on these opportunities and become leaders for our team?

This statement takes the ownership of the problem off women and places it where finding the solution belongs—with the organization.

Companies usually have good intentions, but how can they fix a structure rife with barriers to entry and unattainable standards placed on women, if many helped create the problem in the first place?

Imposter syndrome is real, and women have been attending countless training and seminars to help offset these feelings. It’s now time for companies to take ownership and start shifting their narratives and look within their own structures to root out the parts of their business that help perpetuate the barriers women face when climbing the ladder.