Can you hear that nagging, undermining voice at the back of your mind? It’s almost certainly wrong. Yet many women at the peak of their careers, who have achieved success often while juggling parenthood, who may have impressive university degrees, are signing off multi-million-pound contracts or running their own businesses, don’t just hear it, they choose to believe it.
Recently model, television presenter and fashion designer Alexa Chung – on the surface the embodiment of success, calmness and confidence – revealed she is among the many to suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’.
“It’s not exclusive to fashion, I’ve felt it with everything I’ve done,” she said in an interview.
“Writing for Vogue, that’s a huge imposter syndrome. Television, every day before we went live, I’d be like, ‘am I equipped to do this? I don’t know’.”
While many of us will be familiar with that momentary wobble before we step into a presentation, interview or meeting, imposter syndrome is a constant, gnawing self-doubt; an irrational questioning of your own ability which left to run riot can suck away confidence, crush career progression and leave highly competent and talented individuals doubting their achievements.
Men can be affected too, yet women – possibly the result of generations of being encouraged to remain in the kitchen – seem particularly prone to these illogical, deeply held feelings of inadequacy.
It isn’t just in our heads. These thoughts influence our feelings, affect decisions and can prevent the grasping of well-deserved career opportunities.
According to the Royal Bank of Scotland’s recent Microbusiness Index, a third of female microbusiness owners surveyed suffer from imposter syndrome.
There they are running successful businesses, providing employment and represent the very bedrock of the economy – microbusinesses make up 94 per cent of Scottish businesses – Yet instead of celebrating their strengths and feeling great about how well they’re doing, these successful women are sweating through anxiety and panic that they’ll suddenly be “found out”.
Yet the RBS research suggests they have nothing to worry about and instead should be proud of their achievements: they have embraced technology to make their businesses work, many are university educated and just over a quarter have become their own boss by the time they’re 35.
But if Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou can find herself battling ‘the fear’ – she once said: “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.’ – what hope for the rest of us?
When it comes to gender discrepancies in the workplace – and in particular at senior levels in UK business – you have to wonder what impact imposter syndrome may be having in preventing women from stepping up the ladder.
The Hampton-Alexander Review, launched by the government in 2016 to increase gender diversity, has recommended that a third of senior FTSE 350 positions be filled by women by 2020.
Currently, women represent just 25.5% of directors in FTSE 350 companies, mostly in non-executive positions.
To hit its target, 40% of all appointments made in the next two years would need to go to women – a target that’s almost certain to be missed.
The UK is already lagging behind on this front. In California, the state has just passed a bill that would – if it becomes law – require at least one woman to be appointed to board positions by the end of 2019. In addition, there would be a requirement for two women for every board of five members, and three for boards of six, by 2021.
While prising open the closed shop of the boardroom in this way may help address the imbalance, there‘s the risk it prompts women to doubt themselves and question how they’ve come to be there – even if their experience and talent suggests they are more than qualified. This would affect their ability to work effectively at board level and provide men with the excuse that they tried a woman once and it didn’t work out.
I’m increasingly aware of a reticence among females to push themselves forward.
By listening to those nagging doubts and failing to embrace their own successes, they are at risk of being overlooked despite their obvious skills and achievements.
But until women build that inner courage to shut down that nagging voice of doubt and celebrate their own achievements, their biggest career challenge may well be themselves.