There was a meme going round social media a couple of months ago with a cartoon of a father taking his two young children to a football match. One child was much shorter than the other and they were standing behind a barrier, which neither child could see over.
The father gave his children each the same sized box to stand on. The taller child could now see the match, but the shorter child couldn’t. This was equality.
In the second image, the shorter child had a taller box and both children could now enjoy watching the game. This was ‘equity’ – giving each child what they needed to be able to have the same opportunities.
I was discussing this at an event I spoke at last week, with regards to the gender pay gap and lack of gender parity in leadership roles.
Gender equality isn’t enough.
We need equity – but that doesn’t mean ‘positive discrimination’. It means proactively removing the barriers that disadvantage women in the workplace when it comes to senior roles.
One of the key findings of the 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study (you can read the white paper here) was that Imposter Syndrome is one of three core drivers in the gender pay gap. The other two were the ‘alpha-male’ culture at the most senior levels of many businesses and the career-destroying impact of requesting flexible working or not wanting to do the extended hours and travel that come with senior roles, so you can spend time with your family, too.
Although the research showed that men and women struggle with Imposter Syndrome at similar rates (52% of female respondents and 49% of male respondents said they experience it ‘daily’ or ‘regularly’), the data showed that men and women handle it very differently.
Men tended to ‘push on through’, despite Imposter Syndrome, which has its own long-term consequences in terms of stress, anxiety and depression, but which also meant that it didn’t hold men back as much from asking for pay rises, ‘owning’ their achievements, or going for promotions.
Whereas for women, the secret 3am self-talk that you’re ‘not good enough’ or might be ‘found out as a fraud’ was enough to keep them playing smaller than male colleagues, being less likely to take full credit for their achievements, not speaking up with their best ideas, not taking opportunities to shine – despite evidence that they were great at their job.
Imposter Syndrome can lead to women being less likely to be considered for leadership roles.
Another key finding of the research was that the level of Imposter Syndrome for men tends to go down significantly when they are promoted, with the job title acting as external validation. Whereas, for women, it tends to increase.
If a woman running Imposter Syndrome is promoted into a role that subconsciously feels outside of her ‘safe zone’, she can feel like a spotlight is shining on her, increasing the fear of being ‘found out’, no matter how much evidence there was that she is doing a great job.
So when we look at the positive initiatives that many companies are putting in place to support women into more senior roles, we won’t close the gender pay gap unless we first deal with Imposter Syndrome.
Gender equality isn’t enough. We need gender equity, to level that playing field, genuinely giving women the same opportunities as their male colleagues.
One of the biggest challenges with Imposter Syndrome is that those who struggle with it the most tend to work hard to hide it.
That’s why it’s so important for managers and HR teams to be aware of the warning signs that Imposter Syndrome might be running under the surface. And the 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study now gives us the data to create a framework to spot it – including telling the difference between Imposter Syndrome and confidence / self-doubt – as well as practical action plans for solutions.
With potentially half of a workforce struggling with Imposter Syndrome ‘daily’ or ‘regularly’ in any given year – and its effects on performance, productivity, team dynamics and profit, being able to turn it around can create breakthroughs in business performance, innovation and retention of your best employees.
And you can create those breakthroughs in just a few months, once you have the processes and training in place.
The first key is to open up the discussion about Imposter Syndrome – to remove the taboo.
And this needs to happen amongst men, as well as women. The research study proves that Imposter Syndrome is not just a ‘girl thing’, but that allowing it to appear as such makes it even more likely that Imposter Syndrome will hold women back.
Then, for the equity, you might consider running specific leadership development programmes for women that include clearing Imposter Syndrome as one of the key outcomes.
For less senior staff, the sooner they can ditch Imposter Syndrome, the less of an impact it will have on their career, their future teams, and the business. They can create breakthroughs in as little as 90 days.
I’m curious: are you seeing any of the warning signs of Imposter Syndrome in your organisation?
Would you like to chat about how Imposter Syndrome might be affecting your teams?
You can book a call with me here and I’d be happy to guide you through the kinds of questions you can ask, to find out how big an issue this might be for you, as well as some of the most effective solutions.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome
Host of the Soul Led Leaders Podcast