Recent headlines have touted the record-breaking 10% representation of female CEOs in the top Fortune 500 companies for the first time in its 68-year history. Forbes, for example, led with New Year, New Glass Heights: Women Now Comprise 10% of Top US Corporation CEOs. But should we really be celebrating a figure like 10%?
At a time when women outnumber men in college graduation, and women leaders are as likely as men at their level to want to be promoted, we should be hearing 10% and wondering: why not more?
Imposter Syndrome is often cited as the main culprit driving the gap in female attainment of leadership positions, but the root cause of “imposterism” is misunderstood. Rather than reflecting a lack of female confidence and resilience, I’d argue it stems from the workplace cultures we’ve created that are causing women to feel out of place. We’re making women feel like imposters, then telling them they simply need to be more confident in order to get ahead.
I know what it’s like to suffer from imposter syndrome. I’ve lived this story myself. When you look around your workplace and you don’t see a representation of yourself or leadership that looks like you, it’s easy to start doubting, questioning, and overcompensating.
One particular time in my career, I was told that I was being considered for a promotion in a business function I had never worked in, though I had relevant experience in adjacent parts of the business. Instead of being excited and immediately embracing this opportunity, I gravitated to doomsday questions. “Can I do this? Will my business partners trust me? How can I prove myself?”
Finally, a senior leader in the organization who also served as my sponsor pointed out the obvious – I had earned the opportunity because of my skills, accomplishments, and ability.
One reason imposter syndrome is so prevalent in the workplace is because of the systemic and institutional barriers that women face. These barriers are rooted in centuries of systemic oppression, discrimination, and racism that have limited our opportunities and made us question whether we belong in certain spaces.
The absence of women and Black women in leadership positions and the lack of representation in decision-making roles further reinforces the idea that we should not be there and leaves us without sponsors and mentors who understand our cultural background.
Moreover, for most women, we are often the “onlys” and for women of color we are the double ‘onlys’ in the environments we are in (the only women and only person of color in the room). We’re also acutely aware that because of this we suffer from heightened scrutiny because people may not have been exposed to images or persons like us at particular levels and in certain roles.
This may cause us to be perceived as merely representatives of all women and in the case of Black women of our entire race, and thus puts us on guard and under increased pressure to perform.
Microaggressions, or subtle forms of discrimination and prejudice, can also drive feelings of imposter syndrome. These microaggressions can range from being ignored or dismissed in meetings to having your hair touched by others without your permission. These experiences, although seemingly small, are quite significant, and can add up and create a stressful and psychologically unsafe work environment that undermines women’s confidence and sense of belonging.
Here are three things organizations can do to become more aware of cultural norms that are contributing to feelings of imposter-ism and begin making workplace culture more inclusive of women:
Take a Closer Look at Company Norms
There are very definite norms and ideas of what a leader looks like in today’s environment, and that prototypical leader tends to be white, male, and of a certain pedigree. When there’s a reinforcement of this narrow prototype, it’s difficult for women to break in and lead in different ways that are viewed as value-added.
So instead, women often try to conform or spend a lot of time questioning and testing norms and overthinking how they’re presenting themselves. This takes an enormous amount of energy and can lead to feelings that they simply don’t fit in and exacerbate feelings of fatigue, stress, and the overall mental health and well-being of being women due to having to be hyper-conscious on finding ways to be accepted, understood, and seen as equal.
Not opening an aperture for different genders, cultures, and backgrounds to be integrated into an organization’s culture unconsciously sends signals on the behaviors, approaches, and thinking that’s being rewarded, and it inadvertently promotes sameness.
Focus on the Development of Existing Employees as Much as on Hiring Practices
All too often, organizations are heavily dependent on hiring from the outside to increase diversity and fill their leadership pipelines, rather than looking internally and building a talent pipeline to support and develop the next generation of leaders.
This approach neglects the people inside the company and suggests that diversity must be imported rather than homegrown, which can reinforce feelings of imposter syndrome.
Organizations can show up for women and foster their leadership ambitions by making gender and racial diversity part of their talent management agenda. The goal should be to celebrate different leadership approaches, collaborative teaming, and ways to innovate and improve.
When women can see different leadership styles being respected and rewarded, it gives them space to envision a future for themselves inside of a company being their authentic self and not having to wear a mask or adopt behaviors or leadership styles not their own.
Help Women Build Their Networks Strategically
Women have a natural inclination to connect and build community with one another. We develop female-centric networks to connect, support, share experiences, and survive in the workplace.
Men, on the other hand, often look across a broader spectrum of people and get to know different people for deliberate reasons: Who do I need to connect with, how can they help me on my career journey, what doors can they open for me, and how can I use these connections as relationship currency?
Women are missing opportunities to grow and establish meaningful connections with people who can serve as mentors, advocates, and sponsors by not actively seeking and connecting with men and people across different verticals.
Leaders should be mindful of this and help expand the networks, connections, and relationships of women by facilitating introductions and coaching women on how to build, grow, and effectively utilize their personal and professional networks.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Imposter syndrome is a real and prevalent issue for women in the workplace. It’s a manifestation of systemic and institutional barriers, microaggressions, and pressure to take on personas, styles, and behaviors that prevent women from being seen, accepted, and able to show up as their authentic selves.
To truly create spaces and workplace environments that are inclusive and value and encourage diversity in every sense – in people, in backgrounds and in approaches and in perspectives – it’s essential to take a critical look at the behaviors that are replicated, rewarded, and recognized that sends signals on what the “norm” is and perpetuates a very specific model of success. Doing so inevitably makes some groups feel like the standard and others feel like a deviation from the norm and less welcomed in the workplace with greater expectations to conform to fit in.
When women feel empowered to show up as their authentic selves able to exhibit behaviors, leadership styles, and approaches that are truly their own , I am confident that women’s representation at the top levels will not only represent more than a mere 10% but will continually grow and redefine what leadership looks likes and feels like as well as the behaviors demonstrated within an organizational culture.
About the Author
Wema Hoover is a culture and DEI expert who has dedicated her career to serving as a catalyst for change and as a transformational leader. Her expertise centers on diversity, equity, & inclusion, authentic leadership and women’s empowerment with a reputation for creating systemic organizational change into people, processes, and products on a global scale. As a trusted C-suite and board-level advisor, Wema has leveraged her background leading global DEI efforts for companies like Google, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.