Even though today’s women’s movement has created more public space to hold accountable the kind of unequal, unfair and sometimes illegal environments in which women work, too many women still suffer from the impostor syndrome. It’s that feeling that you’re a fraud and came to success, small or large, by accident.
This is not a shortcoming of women, but an inherited prejudice of our culture. Women are taught to doubt ourselves because we don’t conform to the qualities of the incumbent leaders: white men. And this isn’t specific to one generation. I hear about it from my employees at InkHouse, who are 80 percent female and mostly in their 20s and 30s, and from experienced female CEOs alike. I also have first-hand experience with the deep grooves it carved in my own psyche.
When I was 25 working as the media relations manager for a venture capital firm, I worried that I’d oversold my abilities. I tried to at least look confident, plunging one of my early paychecks into a two-toned Kate Spade bucket bag. And I worked hard. I placed a front-page profile of the firm in The Boston Globe, but I still felt like a fraud because I wasn’t an expert on venture capital. So I lined my notebooks with the tech terms and executives’ names the partners tossed around, researched them later and pretended they were household names to me too.
I even doubted myself when I was among other female leaders. In my late 30s I was appointed by Deval Patrick, then governor of Massachusetts, to a task force to study women’s equality in our state. I spent the first few meetings convinced they’d made a mistake. I was not a policy expert, or a benefits expert, or an elected official. I was just a female business owner trying to make my PR business work. What did I know?
I felt a little better when I discovered that my insecurities had a name. Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the “impostor syndrome” in 1978 when they were studying successful women who believed they were not worthy of their achievements. Their definition:
A feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” These people also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
It also helps when successful women speak out about it. Pulitzer-prize nominee Maya Angelou said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
Before I knew all of this, I spent a good part of my career deeply confused about the difference between my potential and my experience, and it turns out I wasn’t alone. You see, a study of employees at Hewlett Packard revealed that men get hired based on potential while women get hired based on experience. Men apply for a job when they possess 60 percent of the qualifications, while women only apply when they possess 100 percent.
That’s not fair, but it’s real. There is good news though. Ann Friedman, in a piece for the Pacific Standard, notes that people who suffer from the impostor syndrome are likely to be high-achieving (or will be). That’s called potential. I also found data that show how female leadership improves organizational risk-taking because women are “more cautious and less prone to overconfidence” (Bloomberg). In fact, the best-performing companies have the highest numbers of women in leadership roles (DDI and The Conference Board).
This brings me to the qualities that make for a good leader, about which I was also confused. I assumed I’d have to acquire them. It never occurred to me, until much later, to look inside myself. Only then did I learn to lean on my strengths, which include some useful tools such as forgiveness and mercy, love of learning, fairness and equity, and open-mindedness. You can learn yours through the VIA Character Strengths survey. I recommend keeping them close by for moments of self-doubt.
Today, I’m the CEO of a PR firm with 120 people and three offices. A number of years ago, the managing partner of the VC firm where I worked jokingly asked if I wanted him to invest in us. He was paying me a compliment, and it’s one I’ll always remember because by then we didn’t need the money. InkHouse was independently successful and one of the fastest-growing agencies in the country. But even so, I still fought the urge to wave off compliments like that to great luck (and sure, some hard work).
Here’s the secret: I had to let my vulnerability in, and when I did, I settled into my success because I settled into myself. Or take it from Dorothy Woolfolk, DC Comics’ first female editor. In 1993 she said that she created kryptonite because she found Superman’s invulnerability to be boring. Haha. Me too.