It’s all too common among many high-achieving career women – a feeling of inadequacy despite numerous successes and examples of competence. Those with the syndrome are convinced they are frauds; they do not deserve the success they have achieved, and any moment now, will feel a tap on the shoulder telling them they’ve been exposed.
Imposter syndrome is not an officially recognised psychological disorder, but is an affliction felt by many successful professional women. At an International Women’s Day luncheon hosted in Sydney last year by the Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications (FITT) association, the problem was discussed at length to murmurs of agreement around the hall. Fiona Floyd, chief information officer at Suncorp Life, led a discussion on the issue and charged senior women with the task of standing tall, raising their glasses to success, and most importantly, supporting young women coming up through the ranks.
In recent years, an intriguing number of high-profile women have emerged from the woodwork, prepared to speak openly about the struggle to believe in one’s own competence. One example is physicist and senior academic at Cambridge University, Professor Athene Donald, who recently wrote about her own struggle with imposter syndrome on her blog. “We have risen to a degree of seniority that means we have less to fear,” Donald told the Daily Mail. “What I find really interesting about the response to that blog was that suddenly everyone wanted to put up their hand and says “yes, me too”, which I wasn’t really expecting,” she added. Admitting publicly to what could be seen as a weakness may seem to some like a bad career move, but Donald said by doing so, senior women can help younger colleagues see that self-doubt is common and needn’t hold them back.
So why do so many women continue to brush aside compliments, and try to assure others that any successes are flukes, luck, and being in the right place at the right time? For some, it seems like good manners to be humble and reticent about one’s success – but there’s a fine line between self-deprecation and self-destruction. Some ‘imposters’ work themselves to the point of burnout, never satisfied that their best is enough. Others avoid speaking up in meetings or seeking promotion, even when they’re more than qualified.
Importantly, it’s not just women who experience strong feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy – studies have indicated that some 31% of men also struggle with confidence*. Elizabeth Harrin, corporate project manager and author of Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Ten Strategies to Stop Feeling like a Fraud at Work estimated that around a third of copies are bought by men. But all the evidence suggests its women who are the most likely to let it undermine their careers.
Take the test – do you have imposter syndrome?
I hope nobody finds out I’m not as good as they think I am.
I hate challenges. I don’t have what it takes to overcome them.
The cool things I have done in the past all happened by accident.
I hate making mistakes. I am a perfectionist.
When people criticise my work, they’re saying I suck as a person.
The other people I work with are way smarter/better/more awesome than I am.
When people praise my work they’re just being nice.
Nobody likes a braggart.
*2011 survey of senior managers by the Institute of Leadership & Management
*Checklist source: Geoff Crane, cited in Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Ten Strategies to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud at Work by Elizabeth Harrin.