Navigating imposter syndrome: How to help change the system

Meera Varma

By Meera Varma

In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, women continue to carve out their space.  Despite facing unique challenges, 80 percent of women in science, engineering, and technology roles report loving their work.

However, although more organisations are addressing the gender pay gap in technology, women still only account for around 26 percent of people working in IT. According to additional stats, at entry level, 41 percent of roles globally are held by women. Ascending the hierarchy levels, the share of women holding C-suite roles is just 32 percent.

While some effort has been made in the industry when it comes to building diversity – for example balanced hiring at all levels, encouraging an inclusive work culture, and addressing pay gaps – over half of women in tech leave the industry by the mid-point in their career. This is double that of men and leaves fewer women in leadership roles. One contributing factor could be the high instances of imposter syndrome with 75 percent of women executives in tech roles reporting they have experienced imposter syndrome in the workplace.

Imposter syndrome is not new, but it is often cited as the number one reason for not enjoying a senior role within technology. So, what can organisations do to support women in STEM roles from experiencing imposter syndrome?

Think equity, not equality

Women trying to balance work and life can sometimes feel isolated due to a lack of support and understanding from colleagues and employers. These challenges lead to many women struggling to grow and climb within the tech industry and can further generate a feeling of being an imposter.

Our qualitative research shows, for example, when returning to work, new mums feel insecure and worry they’re underperforming because of juggling to get things done at work, at home, with those they care for, as well as taking time for personal health and wellbeing.

While many organisations provide coaching, this is often a one-size-fits-all solution offered to the whole company. While there’s merit in the approach, offering equal coaching opportunities is not as effective as adopting an approach focused on equity – recognising working mums may need a completely different coaching programme.

Many working mothers report wanting to be able to continue in their careers, yet 85 percent end up leaving within three years of having children. And it takes an average of 10 years for a mother’s career to recover and get back to the same level of seniority, or higher, after having children.

Our research outlines some of the steps that organisations can take to support women by addressing systemic issues for anyone likely to experience imposter syndrome:

  • Make flexible working a key company priority, allowing term-time, compressed hours, or a four-day working week, as well as job sharing
  • Role model from the top, encouraging senior leaders to openly communicate how they are prioritising their own family or health and wellbeing commitments
  • Create an environment where boundaries can be set and respected. This can be achieved by running team charter exercises or well-being checkpoints where working hours are discussed and agreed upon in each team.
  • Embedding Inclusion & Diversity into the succession planning process, enables building diverse talent pipelines that are reflective of the workforce. Inclusive succession planning enables long-term mission success amid leadership and workforce shifts.
Not only do those doing three days a week do great work, but they act as role models and they encourage other women to join [the company].”

Build communities – but go beyond bottom-up approaches

Too often women in tech roles don’t have peers to connect with or an adequate number of women leaders to aspire to. Nearly one in three (31 percent) women in tech are considering leaving their organisation over the next 12 months due to poor management, a lack of training, and a sense of community. This trend impacts women pursuing senior leadership roles, and in turn, perpetuates a cycle of greater instances of imposter syndrome. As one member of our community noted: ‘When you are the only woman in the room, it’s normal to feel a lack of belongingness’.

Launching networks to create a sense of unity is always one of the most opted approaches. Women in tech networks create a sense of community and a support mechanism where women can find safe spaces to share opinions, gain confidence to step into leadership roles, and thrive together.

But as imposter syndrome continues to linger across the women in tech population, organisations must go beyond bottom-up approaches and invest in:

Mentoring cycles

Recognising and addressing the gender disparity in self-promotion is a critical aspect that the tech industry needs to confront. Mentors play a pivotal role in rectifying this imbalance through personalised guidance and constructive feedback on specific aspects, such as refining communication skills, navigating complex workplace dynamics, and showcasing achievements effectively. But when mentoring activities are held at group level, further potential is unlocked to create a safe space where women can recognise and celebrate their achievements. It also provides the opportunity to share issues and collaboratively find solutions to support one another.

Skills-building workshops

Skills-building workshops help with personal branding and allow individuals to explore their strengths and weaknesses or improve technical capabilities – all of which can help eliminate imposter syndrome. For example, the IAmRemarkable initiatives help thousands of people learn the importance of self-promotion in their personal and professional lives and be equipped with tools to develop this skill.

Establish sponsorship programmes to help women with asserting themselves

Research from Harvard Business Review highlights the gender gap in self-promotion, revealing that men tend to rate their performance 33 percent higher than equally performing women. In addition, despite there being no evidence that women perform lower than men in senior or technical roles, research shows that there’s an increasing tendency for women to pick up 'office housework'. While this sort of administrative work might be necessary, spending time on it can limit opportunities for career development in other areas. This can contribute to women not getting promoted to senior executive roles because organisations tend to favour the promotion of those with more financial management or business development experience. This is another contributing factor to increased instances of imposter syndrome. Women must be given the support and opportunities to assert themselves and get access to so-called golden deals, which will help them to fast-track their careers. To do that, organisations can:

  • Offer targeted sponsorship programmes for women. This can help support talent in middle management with the potential for advancement within two to five years to, ultimately, a leadership role. Pairing women from outside their immediate sphere of influence in a cross-functional one-to-one sponsorship relationship could also expand their exposure and bring them more on par with their male counterparts when being considered for senior roles.
  • Focus on helping women build assertion skills. This can include running simulation exercises and workshops where women practice these types of skills in real-life scenarios, through verbal and non-verbal communication. The focus should be on areas such as explaining why individuals deserve a promotion or identifying unique strengths. It should also be to explore or create projects where women can practice assertion skills.

We know that imposter syndrome is most certainly not a new experience for women in the workplace, particularly when considering intersectionality, and the nuanced experiences of women who are also part of other minority groups. But with imposter syndrome being cited as the number one reason for women leaving their careers in technology, organisations must continue to think in terms of equity, build communities beyond bottom-up efforts, and establish opportunities around assertion.

To find out more, explore our research, which identifies the most impactful, practical steps companies can take to attract, recruit, and retain women, trans, and non-binary people in STEM.

About the authors

Meera Varma
Meera Varma PA digital services expert

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