Practical action you can take to create an inclusive culture for women at work (part 1): The imposter syndrome

There are a lot of companies who state that they want more diversity in their workforce, but don’t actually change anything about their culture. Attracting women through special programs or affirmative action is not enough. The way we treat each other could also be improved to make women feel more accepted at work and to overcome struggles that keep them from growing into a higher position.

This article is the first in a series of articles which aims at creating a practical guide to changing the company culture to a more inclusive one. It could also serve as a check for managers to find out if they are truly doing the best they can to make their organisation more female friendly. These articles are not meant to make it seem like women are in need of better treatment than men or have to be put on a pedestal. The only goal is to accept and recognise the differences that exist between men and women on the work floor and to propose ways to respond to these differences.

The first article in this guide will provide handles in overcoming the effects of a psychological phenomenon called “the imposter syndrome”. Women suffer from this syndrome in high numbers, especially high achieving women. Certain early family dynamics but also societal sex-role stereotyping that appear later in life appear to contribute significantly to the development of the imposter phenomenon. How can employers create a culture that reduces the effects of this syndrome amongst women?

The imposter syndrome

A person who suffers from the imposter syndrome believes that he or she performs inadequately even though they are evidently successful. These feelings of self doubt override the feeling of being successful but is not the same as low self-esteem. Imposter syndrome can lead to issues on the work floor because these type of employees take less opportunities at work.  Men and women who suffer from this syndrome should take positive self-talk serious and should refrain from comparing themselves to others, perhaps even celebrate their own successes. Women tend to suffer more from imposter syndrome than men. Practical advice to employers would be to push these type of workers to take challenges and to treat a fail like an opportunity to learn. Furthermore it should also be taken into account that employers are dealing with a lifetime of experiences and feedback that tell them that they are generally not as competent as men or even subordinate to men.

How do we turn the tides on the imposter syndrome and how do we recognise it?

Celebrating the successes of women could change the view that women have of themselves and also provides younger women with role models. A well functioning emancipation department could make these role models more visible inside the organisation or connect them to women from other organisations who can serve as an inspiration.

Women who suffer from imposter syndrome usually don’t recognise themselves as suffering from it, after all: they think they truly are an imposter. Therefore it’s not always easy to know when you’re dealing with it. And it’s not the same for every industry. The creative arts and design industry  deals with an extremely high amount of women who feel like imposters, 87% of al women said to have experienced imposter syndrome at least once in 12 months according to a national study of 3000 U.K. adults commissioned by Access Commercial Finance. When trying to attract women to an organisation it should be taken into account that high achieving female candidates might be put off by vacancies with overly demanding requirements. Asking for requirements that are in reality only a preference could send employees with imposter syndrome in the other direction. Showing that there is flexibility in requirements could therefore lead to an increase in female applicants.