What might you, Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama all have in common? Self-doubt perhaps? Otherwise known as ‘impostor syndrome’, it affects women, no matter how accomplished or well-qualified they are, far more than it does men. On book tours for her bestseller ‘Becoming’, Michelle Obama exposed this frailty when admitting to feeling like an imposter most of the time. Similarly, the acclaimed novelist Maya Angelou admitted: "I have written eleven 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.'"
When I was writing my first book ‘Beyond the Boys’ Club: Strategies for Achieving Career Success as a Woman Working in a Male Dominated Field’ I was amazed at how many accomplished women struggle with the sense that at any day, they’ll be ‘found out’ for how little they know. Women who lead large teams, women with a slew of qualifications behind their name, women who are seen as leaders in their field - the kind of people most of us aspire to be. In many ways, a book about successful women, wouldn’t have been complete without tackling Impostor Syndrome.
That’s not to say men too don’t struggle with feelings of self-doubt as well. It is widely claimed they simply hide it better than women - the ‘fake it till you make it’ mentality, of which there’s likely to be some truth. However, I would also add that amongst the corporate clients I advise, historically led by men, the credibility and commitment of women is indeed more likely to be questioned. If the man who takes off for his child’s sports day is seen as a ‘dedicated dad’ but the woman who does the same is seen as ‘not committed’ - is is any wonder women begin to buy the idea they are less credible and experience a creeping sense of self-doubt?
Doubt is contagious. This is particularly true if there are few role models around her with whom she identifies. Asking the more accurate question ‘Will I succeed here?’ starts to bleed into the more undermining question: ‘Will I succeed?’ Conversely, if you are a white male, native speaker in the country in which you work, feeling uncertain, looking around and seeing lots of leaders ahead of you with whom you identify is reassuring. It also ‘seeps’ into your identity to creates a sense of security and certainty that you are likely to be on the right path - the opposite of self-doubt.
In the 25 years I have focused on the psychology of professional women, I’d advise 3 truisms:
Suzanne Doyle-Morris, Author, Speaker & Gender Balance Expert for 25+ years.
Hear what I told BBC Radio about what to do about the worsening gender pay gap data