Strong women and imposter syndrome
Last week I was I my element – surrounded by a group of sassy, strong women who had made it in life. I was speaking at a conference for woman lawyers from all over Europe and the subject was very simple – them and their potential.
Words of inspiration came from the older attendees – stories of raising children whilst driving a career, advice on overcoming the guilt, statements that you did not have to be a feminist but, by damn, you had to be an equalist; evidence of women refusing to be cowed by male perception of their gender; laughter about dealing with boardroom and office behaviour; hilarity when the two male guest speakers insisted they did not think of themselves as men (the chorus of “yeah yeah!” lifted the roof); the generosity of women to women in sharing wisdom, experience and encouraging words.
My session was about creating personal resilience by balancing your body, mind and soul. Instead of the gruff denial I often get from male audiences, I was facing an open minded group of people who were willing to listen to solutions even if they did not suit their circumstances. My only mistake was to state that a typical response to stress is to eat junk food – that did not sit well with the Parisian women who evidently thought me quite unhinged.
Then came the turning point. A senior lawyer who had so impressed her colleagues with her talk of balancing family and clients, who was strong in saying she did not have to be a feminist to have strength, who has wowed her younger peers with her grace and self-assuredness, stood up and asked for women to step forward to apply for leadership positions. Suddenly, the laughter turned to blank faces and looking at the table in case anyone might point and say ‘what about you?’
In a second, the energy changed to low level fear and the sudden drop in self-belief was palpable.
Every time I talk about this, I get a row of women nodding in the audience. Imposter syndrome is that terrible feeling that you are not as good as other people think you are and that they are going to find out. It is a gnawing self-doubt which sometimes turns to acute anxiety and a belief that public humiliation for incompetence is just around the corner. Research tells us that this feeling is not absent in working males, but it is far more prevalent in working females. Of course there are women who defy this trend – just look at the actions of Grace Mugabe and her relentless drive to take over Robert Mugabe’s terrible legacy. All she was thinking about was her right to rule and never her competence to lead. But Grace Mugabe is unusual in womankind. Most of us live with a niggling doubt that maybe we are just not good enough. It can be overcome – look out for our forthcoming article on Imposter Syndrome and how to beat it – but even that takes courage.
Women underestimate their ability and potential. Research has shown that women compared to men when asked to predict their score on an ability test consistently under-rated their score and then did better than they expected. In the male group the pattern was – yes, you have guessed it – exactly the reverse.
Likewise, other research has demonstrated that women apply for a job when they believe they can meet 100% of the criteria while men apply when they can easily meet on 60% of the criteria.
The leadership positions being put forward would include psychometric and interview assessment. I suspect that too many women in that audience feared they would fail. See our article on Managing Psychometrics
Most of my clients have diversity policies which are focused on keeping women in the workplace. At our conference worrying statistics showed that, despite all these HR efforts, the number of women in law firms drops from 55% at the junior levels to 32% at partner level. At exec level it is under 10%. So why are women choosing to leave before achieving leadership? Some make an active decision, others are exhausted, some feel guilt, and others put their husband’s career first. Because there is one factor which diversity cannot overcome – biology. Women give birth and, in general, society has not changed. After giving birth the woman becomes the primary carer. This means that in many ‘equalist’ families it is the women who tends to the sick child, the woman who organises school uniforms, lunch packs, birthday parties and friend sleep-overs; it is the women who still shoulder the burden of domestic chores and organisation. Until a diversity policy can step outside the workplace and change the family gender balance, women will continue leave careers in their thirties.
So, with all this in mind, maybe it is not surprising that the forty tough and sassy women went silent. Too many were doubting they had the ability, the capacity to get through the assessment process and then the time to do the job to 100% of its requirement.
I looked around the room and knew – yes knew – they were wrong. Their businesses would be lucky to have them - but not doing enough to tell them so and encourage them. Change will only come when women start stepping forward, throwing of the shackles of an erroneous imposter syndrome, proving themselves wrong in their low self-belief and insisting that equality starts at home.