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Earlier this month, I wrote about different ways to celebrate Women’s History Month at work. As we approach the end of the month, it’s important to celebrate women in the workplace beyond the month of March. One way to do this is by finding different ways to recognize and uplift women with an understanding of systemic barriers that women experience in the workplace, such as imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a specific form of intellectual self-doubt – when a person feels that they are a fraud or phony relative to their actual professional achievements. According to one article from the American Psychological Association (APA) on the topic:

“Impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”

First documented in high achieving women in the 1970s, the APA states imposter syndrome is still prevalent among women, specifically women of color. Interestingly enough, imposter syndrome affects high-achieving women who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments, so the feelings of being an imposter in high-level positions are not linked with any inadequacy in reality. For women of color, self-doubt and feelings of exclusion in the corporate workplace can be even more pronounced. Organizations should be interested in addressing imposter syndrome because when employees do not feel comfortable or confident in their roles, they are less able to contribute to the organization’s success.

In a recent PracticalESG podcast, Velera Wilson, a coach who empowers confidence in women in the workplace, points out that imposter syndrome results from internal and external conditions. Women should confront negative self-talk that fosters debilitating feelings of inadequacy to address the internal conditions. To address external conditions that create the feelings of imposter syndrome, Velera’s advice for allies and organizations is to start with increasing awareness of these issues and the role that the workplace plays in creating these conditions.

We should shift conversations away from a narrow scope of fixing a confidence deficit in women, to fixing systems of bias and exclusion that foster imposter syndrome in women and women of color. Allies and organizations can consider ways they can dismantle the systemic challenges women face in the workplace and support the advancement of women’s careers by addressing imposter syndrome.

What You Can Do

What allies can do:

  1. Learn more about women’s challenges in the workplace and identify biases that you might have and the role you may play in perpetuating inequity in the workplace
  2. Act as mentors to provide affirmation, advice, or insight into how women can get to the next step in her career
  3. Act as a sponsor to bring up women’s strengths and suggest her for special projects and promotions
  4. Call out when spaces lack gender diversity and insist on having adequate representation before significant discussions and decisions are made.
  5. Speak up when you witness microaggressions and mansplaining

What employers/organizations can do:

  1. Assess how your workplace practices, norms, and culture contribute to creating imposter syndrome and commit to making improvements, including retraining, coaching, or removing managers that engage in hostile management practices that are hostile to women.
  2. Educate employees and managers about historical inequity and structural challenges women face in the workplace and unconscious bias, and their inhibitive role in the hiring and performance management process.
  3. Celebrate women in the workplace by highlighting achievements and advancements inside and outside of the workplace to provide visibility and highlight a focus on gender equity
  4. Track diversity, equity, and inclusion metrics that will help you understand some of the systemic issues women may face in your workplace:
    • Gender in your workforce, in all levels of leadership, and the board
    • Performance ratings and promotions sliced by gender.
    • Sentiment surveys and manager satisfaction surveys sliced by gender.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile