I came across an article this week, published in Forbes, on how to close the gender confidence gap and increase gender equity in leadership roles. The author correctly identified that Imposter Syndrome is at the root of this.
But - yet again - it's the case of a well-intentioned man completely missing the point, telling women that all we need to do to close the gender pay gap is to dress more smartly, pay attention to our grooming, adopt a confident posture, and to speak up more in meetings (with the correct tone of voice and mannerisms).
By implication, the author is telling us that women who aren't achieving their full potential are slovenly slouches, with near-zero communication skills, and no interpersonal skills, who deserve to be overlooked for promotions that men are then awarded - because men didn't need that advice.
Unfortunately, I come across articles like this every week, even in publications that should know better. And I hear it from women who have been told it by managers and mentors in the workplace.
The problem with messaging like this - especially in prominent publications or from people in authority - is that it pushes the blame for the gender pay gap back onto women. And they're already feeling enough guilt and shame, if they're struggling with Imposter Syndrome.
What The Data Tells Us About The Gender Confidence Gap
The 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study showed that Imposter Syndrome - the secret fear of being found out as 'not good enough', despite evidence that you are - runs at similar rates for men and women, but they handle it very differently.
52% of female respondents and 49% of male respondents said they had struggled with it 'daily' or 'regularly' in the past year - at a level that impacted their work performance, their confidence, the actions they took, and their emotional and mental health.
Yet almost all of them were experts at hiding it.
The huge difference the research found, though, was in the actions men and women took, if they had Imposter Syndrome.
In the 100+ depth interviews that went with the 2,000-person quantitative study, it was found that there were clear differences between the sexes; differences which disproportionately disadvantaged women in terms of their current role and future promotion opportunities. For example:
The Gender Confidence Gap: Men Vs Women
How men vs women respond differently when Imposter Syndrome strikes - white paper - please note that these are generalisations and there will always be exceptions
Actions Taken By Women, Caused By The Gender Confidence Gap And Imposter Syndrome:
In addition, the Forbes article - and thousands like it - is suggesting that by addressing the surface-level symptoms (the clothes women wear, whether they've met the required grooming standards, whether they're cracking enough jokes in the right way in a meeting to win round the guys) that miraculously their secret 3am self-talk will shift from beating them up to being a cheerleader.
You can't clear the root cause of an issue by playing around with the behavioural effects. And this kind of advice leads to women feeling like even more of a failure, when it doesn't work for them. The article is full of the kind of advice I regularly hear from well-meaning coaches and experts, and it's why the research study showed that 'classic coaching' doesn't fix Imposter Syndrome and can even make it worse.
It's why the vast majority of people in the research study believed that Imposter Syndrome is 'incurable' - because making changes at the 'effects' level, rather than at a 'causal' level, doesn't fix the problem.
The triggers for Imposter Syndrome run at a deeply subconscious level and we often don't realise it has reared its ugly head until our heart is already racing, our mouth has gone dry, and we can feel the adrenalin and cortisol streaming through our bloodstream.
This stress response happens without conscious thought and puts us into the 'fight-flight-freeze' mode, which diverts blood flow from the frontal cortex of the brain (responsible for answering questions brilliantly in meetings or coming up with great ideas) to the primal part, which only cares about keeping us alive until the sabre-toothed tiger has left.
That's why Imposter Syndrome can make your mind go blank in that very meeting where you're supposed to be sharing your brilliant ideas.
Imposter Syndrome also affects a person's performance and productivity - see the Four Ps Of Imposter Syndrome - perfectionism, procrastination, project paralysis, and people-pleasing.
Lockdown has made this situation worse, with research showing that women have been taking on the bulk of the extra childcare and home schooling, whilst juggling this with their normal workload.
Women are reporting that their stress levels have increased and they are worried that they will be judged as under-performing over lockdown, missing out on future promotion opportunities or even losing their job, as a result. It has hit their confidence, hard.
The Three Hidden Triggers Of The Gender Pay Gap
The research study showed that there are three hidden factors in the gender pay gap and lack of gender equality in leadership roles, but that these aren't being addressed by the majority of companies:
Three Hidden Triggers Of The Gender Pay Gap
1. The Alpha-Male Culture In The C-Suite
There comes a point in too many companies where heart-based, feminine-style leadership is no longer valued, and women are required to change how they lead to fit in with the competitive, alpha-male C-Suite culture. What made these women great managers and leaders is no longer valued. Women feel they don't belong in that culture.
2. Lack Of Flexible Working
Too many women are being forced to choose between their career and their family. Asking for flexible working - even ad hoc for a school play - is often seen as a sign of a lack of commitment and causes them to be judged as not ambitious enough to gain senior level promotions. And many women's childcare commitments mean they simply cannot take on the additional working hours and travel that more senior roles demand.
3. Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome disproportionately disadvantages women, because men and women handle it differently. This is what creates what we perceive as the gender confidence gap. It causes women to subconsciously sabotage career opportunities and prevents them from reaching their full potential.
To Close The Gender Confidence Gap - And The Gender Equality Gap - We Need To Create A Genuine Level Playing Field
Instead of 'blaming' women for the gender confidence gap - and implicitly the gender equality gap - we need to focus our energy on creating a genuinely level playing field. I wrote recently about why we don't need equality, but instead with need equity, to achieve this.
This means looking at a company's culture, traditions, rules and attitudes, to see whether any of them are unintentionally disadvantaging women.
And there's no shame or blame in this. A recent UN study found that 90% of men - and a shocking 90% of women - hold unconscious gender bias against women.
Then we need to have leadership development programmes in place that proactively support people to clear out Imposter Syndrome - to close the gender confidence gap - so that everyone has the same opportunity to thrive.
And we need HR teams and managers to have training in how to spot and how to support people who are struggling with Imposter Syndrome. It's something that people work hard to hide, but there are behavioural 'tells' that can give you hints that action is needed.
Too many companies and industries still have ingrained gender bias in their culture, where women are expected to behave in a certain way, in order to reach the most senior roles. And this means those companies are missing out on the best minds in their business, as these women leave to work somewhere that they can really be themselves.
Or we have the tragedy of those women 'shutting down' and conforming, no longer being all of who they really are, in order to feel that they fit in and have the same opportunities as their male colleagues.
How Can We Support Women To Close The Gender Confidence Gap?
The author of the Forbes article that rattled my cage today says: "I wish there were definitive steps to build self-confidence and self-esteem, but I don’t think they exist." That's from the CEO of a Leadership Development firm.
I've got news for him - they absolutely do!
In fact, I published a book about exactly how to do this - Ditching Imposter Syndrome - and it already has readers in over thirty countries. It's step by step how-to that has been helping both women and men to finally set themselves free from Imposter Syndrome.
And the book was based on over fifteen years of helping high-achievers to do exactly that - to clear away the self-imposed glass-ceilings that they didn't even realise were there, so they could lead with confidence, clarity and passion.
As leaders, each of us has a responsibility to look both at how we can clear our own inner blocks, and also help others to do so.
I'm curious: what action could you take in the next 24 hours to make progress on closing the gender confidence gap, to create a genuinely level playing field in your company, so that everyone has the same opportunity to thrive and shine?
Want to talk about solutions? Book a call with me: