Imposter Syndrome in Women Leaders at the Corporate Level

There is a history of debate about whether imposter syndrome in the workplace is real. Is it simply an illusion or is it a true experience resulting from generations of systemic social bias? 

I believe that imposter syndrome is something that exists in the workplace today.

Imposter syndrome cultivates an internal focus that stops women from appreciating what they’re bringing to the C-Suite — which is valuable. Accepting that imposter syndrome is a reality, means that female leaders can start to think about how to get ahead of it. 

The Reality of Imposter Syndrome for Female Executives

It is true that imposter syndrome does not affect everyone at the corporate level. It grows within some people more than others and, generally speaking, it grows more within women than men — especially women who move further along the ranks of their corporations. 

KPMG’s 2020 Women’s Leadership Summit Report revealed that “as much as 75 percent of female executives report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career” and “nearly half (47 percent) of executive women say that their feelings of imposter syndrome result from never expecting to reach the level of success they have achieved.”

The study also reveals that even when women know their career advancement has been earned, they worry that they won’t meet the cultural expectations of their corporation. They fear their peers may question their abilities and their role in the company’s hierarchy. These concerns allow imposter syndrome to settle in.


Why Do Women Experience Imposter Syndrome in Corporate Roles?

The root causes of imposter syndrome for women may be linked to the dichotomy between how boys and girls are raised. Many women feel that in previous generations, boys, more than girls, were taught from an early age to be confident, show less emotion, and be leaders. 

Societal and cultural expectations and stereotypes around gender roles and family rearing are also factors that can contribute to self-imposed pressure and criticism that can lead to self-doubt. 

For women in corporate roles, imposter syndrome is further exacerbated by the lack of representation in their peers, an internal push for perfection, and a struggle to trust their credentials.


They Are Not Reflected in Their Surroundings

KPMG reports that 32% of women identify with imposter syndrome because they don’t know other women in similar roles (personally or professionally). 

The unfortunate reality is, the gender gap between men and women in senior leadership roles is significant. Altrata’s 2022 Global Gender Diversity report found that female representation in corporate leadership teams (the C-suite) is only 19.2%, and only 5% of all CEOs are women.

As a woman moves forward in a corporate environment, she will find fewer and fewer women around her with each promotion she accepts. Fewer women sitting alongside her at the conference room table and in board rooms. Fewer women in her peer groups. Fewer women who can relate to the increased stress and pressure of corporate leadership.

The lack of “reflection of self” — when the way a woman feels and thinks is not reflected around her — can lead women to question their very being; to question whether they truly belong in a position that so few other women are in. 


The Constant Strive for Perfection

Research suggests that a man’s leadership capabilities are assessed based on potential, and a woman’s leadership capabilities are assessed on performance. The assumption then is that a woman must always be successful and always produce high-quality results to be a leader. Failure is not an option.

This pressure to perform leads women to believe that perfection is the only path to being seen, heard, and valued. Inevitably, perfection will not be delivered. A goal will not be achieved. This triggers feelings of insecurity and inadequacy; feeling like she does not deserve to be in the position she has earned.

When striving for perfection, a leader cannot be bold. They cannot take risks. The result is a leader who cannot grow. The reality is that perfection is unattainable and more often than not, it’s self-imposed. 99% of the time, perfection is not expected, and female leaders must let go of unachievable, perfection-driven goals.


An Internal Struggle To Trust Their Confidence and Credentials

Any woman whose career elevates to the C-Suite is confident. It is not possible to reach such a position without confidence. Even so, transitioning into a corporate leadership team means moving away from day-to-day tasks that have a finish line. It’s stepping into responsibilities that may be new and unfamiliar.

Not having the answers right away may be an uncomfortable and difficult adjustment. It can lead a woman to question herself. She may think, “I should know exactly what to do in this situation and I don’t. If I was equipped for this role, I would know the next steps.”  

This insecurity arises when women don’t allow their confidence to lead. When they don’t trust that they have the credentials to support their role. 

Women must accept that it is okay to be challenged in the workplace. Female executives are in their challenging roles because they have proven themselves to be confident and capable. 


How Women Executives Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome

How do women equip themselves to say “I should be here. I’m here for a reason and I’m not going to let feeling like an imposter get in my way”?

Women must answer their “whys.”

Why am I feeling insecure? 

Why do I feel vulnerable when the person in the seat next to me isn’t feeling vulnerable? 

For female executives to find success in their leadership role, they will need to navigate these feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy that may evolve into imposter syndrome.


Lean Into Mentors

Women leaders need to help women leaders. As Sheryl Sandberg says, “Women achieve amazing things when they support each other.” 

Women in corporate life who have a wealth of experience need to step in and impart their knowledge and perspective. 

Female mentor-mentee relationships help women learn how to:

  • Track and achieve goals
  • Voice ambitions and become a self-advocate
  • Trust, and not question, self-confidence
  • Build a network that can lead to new opportunities and career advancement
  • Seek out advanced assignments
  • Ask for pay raises
  • Turn to those who can hold her up in vulnerable moments

It’s important for a woman to cultivate mentorship early in her careers. There are no rules as to who can be a mentor. A mentor does not have to be a superior. They can be a peer — someone who is in the trenches alongside her. Years of experience are also not required. Even a woman only a few years into a corporate leadership role has beneficial experience to share with someone who has similar ambitions.

Professional coaching is one way to begin cultivating relationships and building a network of strong, knowledgeable women to reach out to in times of vulnerability.


Acknowledge the Emotions

Female executives must be brave enough to acknowledge what they’re feeling. “I’m here, I’ve earned this position but I’m not feeling celebratory, I’m feeling stress — not stress about the job, but stress about whether or not I should even have it.” 

Women should allow themselves to confide in peers and those they trust. They should speak with their mentor and be open about what they’re feeling. When a woman is bold enough to speak about their feelings, the people around her will be encouraged to reinforce her value and why she got the position.

Seeking external validation can be tricky. It can’t become a crutch, but knowing that others value a woman’s ideas and contributions can do a lot to help her overcome internal feelings of fraudulence.


Celebrate Success

Men celebrate their success regularly. It might be a drink in their corner office after a successful meeting, a round of golf after a deal closes, or a dinner with colleagues complete with celebratory toasts. 

Women may call this ego, but there is a fine balance between a woman hiding her ego and using it to propel herself forward in a positive way. Celebrating success does not negate a woman’s professional demeanor or paint her as a “show-off.” When a woman takes time to recognize an achievement, she is acknowledging her ambition and her worth and it’s a simple way to ward off imposter syndrome.

Taking time to celebrate can help leaders identify what went right — what they can replicate in the future to achieve more success. Celebration can be a motivational tool to accomplish even more.

Celebration does not have to be big or even public. It can be a family dinner, a text to a friend, a drink on the way home from work, a small purchase, or even just a moment of pause and reflection.


K. Parking Consultancy: Helping Women Acknowledge and Overcome Vulnerability To Embrace Their Full Leadership Potential

Leadership is a journey. Part of that journey may include overcoming imposter syndrome. K. Parkin Consultancy exists to support women in leadership roles through the complex navigation of the C-suite and the development of strategies that will ward off self-doubt and build fortitude and confidence.