How women in technology can overcome imposter syndrome

Recently I ran a women’s lunch event at our company sales kick-off and opened up about how, even now, I still get nervous about presenting the sales results.

Despite there being great results (again), I had this feeling that I don’t belong; I felt like an imposter and that the highly accomplished predominantly male audience, who are highly supportive of my work, were somehow questioning my capabilities. This lack of self-belief, of course, was just in my head.

I wasn’t the only woman in the room who had had this feeling. One woman said she had been so nervous about giving a technical presentation, even though she knew the topic inside out, because she felt male experts would expose her as a fraud, even though there wasn’t a single male chauvinist in sight, and her male colleagues had praised her work.

Where does this lack of self-confidence grow from? In the technology industry, women are still hugely outnumbered by men, and their skills and ambition can be underestimated, which all fuels what is known as imposter syndrome. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines imposter syndrome as “an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes.” Imposter feelings can be accompanied by anxiety and depression.

Our lunch group shows how prevalent the problem is. We surveyed the women attending, and 5% said they felt extremely intimidated when discussing mostly technical topics with a male audience. 52% said they were moderately intimidated, and the remaining 43% were not. This shows that 57% of our intimate group is suffering at the hands of imposter syndrome. Our findings mirror a recent survey by Blind, the anonymous social network, which found that 58% of male and female tech employees from companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Apple were also fighting intense feelings of insecurity in their roles.

Imposter syndrome fans the tech gender gap flames

Imposter syndrome is a persistent malaise in the technology industry, and although it can also apply to men, women are usually more affected.

Imposter syndrome is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt that eats away at one’s confidence, creates enormous angst and inevitably holds women back in their tech careers. I’ve seen women suffering who continually question their intelligence, skillset and worthiness for the roles they are in.

When these women are successful in leading a project or closing a big sale, they deflect the praise or brush it off as luck. Alternatively, they stay quiet, for fear of saying the wrong thing that, they believe, will show them up as woefully under-qualified for the role.

These women are innovative experts in their fields, yet they are paralyzed by a fear of failing. A fear that stops them from taking risks that could ultimately propel them upward in their careers.

Many women who suffer from imposter syndrome are also perfectionists. They set themselves almost impossible goals and always rake through mistakes and failures over and over again.

Getting to grips with imposter syndrome

The first big step to overcoming imposter syndrome is understanding what you are actually feeling and why. Once you have identified the confidence culprit, you can start to deal with it.

  • Start an accomplishment box to embrace how far you’ve gotten in your career and acknowledge all your hard work. I keep a file on my computer, and when anyone sends me a complimentary comment or says “job well done,” I store it. On days when I don’t like myself, I refer to those emails to reinforce the fact that I’ve earned my spot on the podium.
  • Update the language you use with more assertive phrases. Instead of saying, “I feel this is the way forward,” say, “I think this is the way forward.” Look out for imposter syndrome in your team, and in addition to searching out a mentor, offer your own mentoring skills. Remember you have knowledge and expertise to share. Share it with someone who will benefit from it.
  • Finally, it is important to provide a network for your female colleagues to share their experiences. When they are doing a great job, tell them so. A couple of words of praise can go a very long way in boosting someone’s confidence.

Don’t view imposter syndrome as a problem that you need to shoulder on your own. Also, take comfort in the fact that most high achievers suffer from imposter syndrome. So start to internalize your successes and enjoy them!

Glenda Brady
Glenda Brady

Glenda Brady is VP Sales and Marketing for Europe at Orange Business Services and has been with Orange Business Services since 1998. A keen and active coach both internally within Orange Business Services and externally, Glenda also supports various programs that encourage women in STEM and has set up a forum in the European organization for women in sales and pre-sales.

She is an avid rugby supporter (and one-time player) and, when not working or supporting her home team, she likes to run marathons.