17 May 2022

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Addressing Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

When I began writing this blog post, it was entitled “Tips for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome”, but something about that didn’t feel quite right. We’ve stated from the start that The Women’s Domain is a research project, and that includes educating ourselves and voicing our concerns and opinions on topics that are often overlooked. Why then, did I immediately lean towards fixing women experiencing imposter syndrome rather than question why it exists in the first place? 

That’s down to my own internal bias, fostered by the consumption of content that typically targets women. We’re inundated with messages telling us how to be better, look better and do better, and so it’s easy to see why it’s women who are typically faced with imposter syndrome. Yet, we’re not the problem. Women don’t need fixing.

We should instead be focusing on the role workplaces play in manifesting imposter syndrome and what those in leadership positions can do to create a culture of inclusion that is also void of systemic bias.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

The concept of imposter syndrome was originally developed by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who coined the term “imposter phenomenon” in their 1978 study focusing on high-achieving women. Their findings revealed that despite being high-achievers, many of the women still doubted themselves and their accomplishments.

It is worth noting that the original study excluded many women, namely women of colour and those from different economic backgrounds. We now know that context and cultural factors are incredibly important for understanding how and why imposter syndrome exists in different women. 

Women in the study often doubted their own abilities and found it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many would question whether they deserved the accolades they had received. These thoughts and feelings are still present in women today. 

When we held our internal roundtable discussion on women in ecommerce, it was agreed amongst the team that many women will think they can’t apply for certain jobs unless they feel they are 100% qualified. Whereas men are more likely to apply for the role anyway and ‘wing it’. This self-doubt will act as an obstacle for women looking to make their way up the ladder, while men can continue to climb without feeling like a fraud. For women of colour, these feelings are magnified as they also face systemic racism. 

The onus is on workplaces and those in management to create an environment where women of all backgrounds are seen to be just as professional and capable as the ‘white boys’ club’ often associated with positions of leadership. 


How to Eliminate Imposter Syndrome in the Workplace

There is validity in experiencing imposter syndrome and it doesn’t just come from within the individual. Go ahead and stand in front of a mirror exclaiming “you are worthy”. Feel free to take confidence classes or write a list of all your achievements. If these things help you, go for it, but it’s important to ascertain whether it’s actually where you work that needs to make changes.

Here are some ways businesses and managers can help eliminate imposter syndrome from the workplace.


Widen the Definition of a Leader

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, authors Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey discuss how “managers cannot be considered effective if they can only manage employees who are like them.”

In order for women to accept positions of leadership, they must be able to see themselves represented in such roles. It is up to businesses to create an environment where employees from marginalised backgrounds are seen as perfectly capable managers. The current system favours a particular type of leader: a white, well-educated male from a middle-class background. 

It’s not arrogance, it’s confidence. 

Jeans and a t-shirt? He’s appealing to a younger generation. 

He’s not angry, he’s just making a point. 

Ah, he forgot to send over that email – no worries, he must have other important things to do. 

These are potential qualities this type of leader possesses that would be considered unprofessional, aggressive or incompetant if they were performed by a woman, and in particular a woman of colour. While the current system rewards these attributes, they are deemed unacceptable for women. 

There needs to be a shift in how businesses promote employees into management positions. This involves addressing what really makes a leader and understanding that diversity in management paves the way for women wishing to climb the ladder who currently question whether there is a place for them. 


Recognition and Affirmation

The language used in the workplace makes a huge difference to employee wellbeing. Imposter syndrome plants seeds of doubt, uncertainty and a fear of failure. Leaders need to ensure they create a working environment that recognises accomplishments and uses rewarding language that solidifies belief in their employees’ ability.

It’s important to provide support and an open space for employees to discuss their concerns and fears without repercussions. There are no stupid questions. Never shame a team member for asking something that seems obvious to you. It is also on management to understand the challenges faced by those from underrepresented backgrounds and address them within the business. The majority of women we have spoken to so far for The Women’s Domain have experienced derogatory comments by a male peer at some point in their careers. This language needs to be called out. 

It’s also important to address the harmful workaholic rhetoric often associated with career progression. We’re constantly hearing the phrases ‘girlboss’ or ‘momtrepreneur’ thrown around in the context of trying to be the best at everything, working 24 hours a day as if that’s a healthy way to live. It’s imperative workplaces avoid rewarding this behaviour. It’s not healthy and has a damaging effect on women, particularly mothers, who are more likely to require flexibility. It is not surprising that 1 in 3 working mothers are considering downshifting or dropping out of the workforce altogether, according to McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report. Be mindful of the behaviour you reward and accept that there are different paths to leadership.


Own It

We get it, it’s hard to accept when you’ve made mistakes. Going forward, you need to take responsibility for how your employees feel. Listen to your team and acknowledge that if they are experiencing imposter syndrome, it’s your job to fix it. 

Ask ‘what can we do?’ and listen to your employees about their experiences. Understand the barriers women face, particularly women of colour, and invest in creating opportunities for growth. 

One thing we have implemented as a company is weekly anonymous surveys that provide the team with freedom to voice any concerns, frustrations and ideas within the business. This helps us to educate ourselves and the wider team on matters of interest and make changes to improve our company culture. In other words, we own it. Good and bad. 

If you want women to thrive in the workplace and promote a culture of inclusion, you need to accept that imposter syndrome, self-doubt and a lack of confidence isn’t on the individual. It’s down to you to lead the way.




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