I have asked friends if they would like to write guest posts for me over the next few months, and the first one I am proud to present is from my dear friend Suzan Bond. This lady is creative, kind, engaged. The type of person who really listens when you speak. I hope you enjoy her post as much as I did. ~ Aimee
Impostor Syndrome For Women & Feeling Like A Fraud
by Suzan Bond
Doubt and fear are common companions on the road to doing great things. About midway through a panel on women and technology that I recently attended, these two thieves of joy made their presence known. There was a long line of women waiting for their turn to ask questions of the renown panel.
Standing at the microphone, she wore a simple but smart outfit of a grass green sleeveless top and a black pencil skirt. She looked like a marketing assistant for a large company who was trying to look the part. Her question was simple: “As a young woman just getting into the workforce what advice would you give so that I don’t get pigeonholed in marketing like most women? I’d much rather be a developer.”
I wanted to shout at her, “Then don’t let anyone pigeonhole you there! Most of all yourself!”
Luckily the panelists offered practical advice quickly so that I didn’t blurt out my opinion in the silence.
Now, I’m in marketing but I certainly wasn’t “pigeonholed” here. I have always followed my interests – which focused on building businesses through people and communication. But I don’t think all women should be in marketing. I believe the greatest happiness comes from following the thing that pulls you in so deep that you forget to eat for eight hours. Whatever that is. Developing software, raising children, creating products or pole dancing. Hey. Who am I to judge?
It’s so disheartening to hear anyone – especially a young woman at the beginning of her career – worry about being pigeonholed. It makes me wonder how many other people have thought this but didn’t have the foresight or strength to say it out loud. When this question sits inside without being voiced, all too often it means the person succumbs to the belief that they’re stuck somewhere they don’t wish to be.
The most interesting part of this particular question/answer was when a panelist asked the woman what she wanted to do. She replied that she really wanted to be a developer but had little experience doing it so she figured she had to take a more traditional “female” job like marketing. In all my years of working with executives and career changers I have only heard one man (just one, people) but nearly every woman can articulate this feeling. That’s a mighty wide ratio. While there are plenty of reasons for this concern including stereotypes like the “marketing chick” and unconscious bias, there’s also another culprit: Impostor Syndrome.
I spent a decade that spanned into my early thirties gripped by the impostor disease. It was so apparent to everyone (aside from myself) that I was its captive that the most common refrain I heard was “You have no idea how (smart, capable, awesome…) you are.” During a coaching course I was taking each participant was given a nickname that symbolized their personal kryptonite. The goal was to become comfortable with the very thing that upset you the most. Becoming more friendly with it was intended to give you more freedom. I was given the name “Mrs. President” by the instructor, a strong woman who looked like she knew her way around a fight. Mortified, I immediately felt the shame dragon curl his flaming hot tail around me. “How could anyone ever compare me to someone that powerful?” I sputtered.
That was exactly the point.
My reaction to someone calling me powerful was well beyond my current awareness and a sure hallmark of impostor syndrome. Other harbingers that it has flown in to roost in your mind are being plagued with self doubt despite your competence or crediting luck or timing for your success rather than your own actions.
In other words: selling yourself short.
Most of us have felt like a fraud at some point. Often it’s at the point that is supposed to be the pinnacle of something: graduation, getting your dream job, publishing a book. “Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake had been made,” Sheryl Sandberg has noted of people experiencing impostor syndrome. It turns out that success doesn’t always beget confidence, particularly for women. While both men and women experience the feeling of being a fraud, studies show that women tend to be more affected. As women gain more responsibility as say the head of a department or even a company, the pressure can intensify. Rather than bringing relief or happiness, success instead seems to usher in an ever growing fear of being found out according to Valerie Young of WEPAN.
Incredibly successful women like Tina Fey, Meryl Streep and Jodi Foster who would be considered successful by nearly everyone’s standards, haven’t escaped its grasp as each of them have claimed feeling like a fraud. In my own circle, this nasty misbelief has been making the rounds. Recently two of my friends independently wrote about this feeling within three weeks of each other. Tara, who is an extremely talented and published writer wrote about feeling like a fraud when doing her craft. Luckily she’s well versed with this feeling so she employs a strategy every time it rears its head. “I remember that I’ve been writing for a long time. I celebrate my small achievements. I go easy on myself. I stop comparing. And I write. That’s really how you prove to yourself that you’re a writer. You do the work.”
Clare mused about the topic in “I am not a fraud” just a few weeks later. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with bright, intelligent people that experience this. Some of the most talented people I have met in the tech industry have admitted that they feel this way – usually after I launch into my own monologue about feeling like a fraud over coffee.” This feeling sneaks in at times despite the fact that Clare works for one of the most respected tech startup incubators and doing a bang up job at it. She concludes her inner conversation with a mantra:
“I want to say this here. I am not a fraud and neither are you.”
I’m proud to see my friends doing battle with the impostor demon and largely winning. Unfortunately, people in the grip of impostor syndrome can present a public face that attempts to hide their real feelings of inadequacy, of never being smart enough, deserving enough or any thing enough for the good things in their life. This public face can become a mask, isolating the person, putting them in a prison which never encourages them to reach beyond. This means wasted opportunities, a feeling of having less freedom or options and likely less wealth if this behavioral loop isn’t interrupted.
But there’s another problem lurking under that the iceberg. “…the real issue was not that I felt like a fraud, but that I could feel something so deeply and profoundly and be completely wrong,” says Sandberg about her own battle with impostor syndrome. She highlights an important issue; when impostor syndrome has taken over we don’t understand our true competence. If we get it wrong enough times or for long enough we start to believe that we can’t trust our intuition. Not being able to trust yourself is like a death sentence to your self esteem.
Trusting yourself, having all the wealth you deserve and attaining important career milestones are all things the impostor syndrome can take away. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As for my young friend at the beginning of this post? I stopped her after the talk to tell her two things: 1) Don’t ever let anyone pigeonhole you based on your gender. 2) And don’t ever limit yourself or feel like you don’t have enough skill to do something.
And yet, I have compassion for her and other young women. When you work in a male heavy field like tech, those feelings are likely to raise just as fast, or even faster as you gain responsibility. When men outnumber women 4:1 as in software development, the feeling that you don’t belong because of incompetency only increases. Getting started in a traditionally male role in a male dominated industry while learning a new skill can rip into the self-esteem of even the most confident person. The feelings of inadequacy are also likely to increase when going for a goal you really want or start a new position that’s a bit of a reach skill-wise.
But you can’t stop when the impostor demon takes up residence in your head or when you see it in someone else. What’s required is unrelenting action.
– Support a woman who is gripped by this affliction.
– Notice when you are doing it yourself.
– Reach further than you ever thought possible. Then reach a little further.
– And when reaching, be prepared for that fear to show up. Have a strategy for dealing with the feelings.
Remember: You are not a fraud. You deserve your success.
One thing you shouldn’t do? Expect those feelings to simply disappear the further you advance in your career. Even Dr. Maria Klawe, President of Mudd College and an advocate for women in computer science, still has moments of feeling like an impostor. “If you’re constantly pushing yourself, and putting yourself in new environments, you’ll feel it over and over again,” she said. “So the only really important thing is not to let it stop you.”
Some would even assert that if the feeling of being a fraud doesn’t show up at all that you’re not aiming high enough in your goals. Rather than curling into a safe ball trying to avoid it, spread your arms wide and invite it in.