The corporate world often urges us to lean into our discomfort zones, telling us that this is where the magic happens. But what if that discomfort is not always about our internal feelings of inadequacy, but instead rooted in a biased and unequal system? It’s high time we expand the narrative beyond the catch-all term “Imposter Syndrome” to something more nuanced and reflective of the systemic challenges we face.
I’ve been in the business of helping women rise in their careers for many years through my RISE programs. What I’ve seen is that even highly successful women, armed with all the qualifications and achievements one could hope for, still find themselves questioning their worth – largely due to the environment around them. Consider this: In a Harvard Business Review study, the majority of senior women leaders identified lack of confidence as central to stalled progress in their careers. For men? Confidence seemed only to be a factor when discussing women’s progress. It’s as if we’re playing chess, but the rules keep changing, and the board keeps tilting. I’ve even had C-suite executives share confidentially that they feel like they must ‘prove themselves’ in meetings repeatedly, even when their male colleagues don’t face the same scrutiny.
In my own journey of rising through the corporate ranks when I worked as an executive in magazines, I noticed that often when I would propose an innovative idea, it would initially be met with skepticism. However, if a male counterpart were to say the same thing, he was lauded for his groundbreaking thinking. You have to wonder, how much of this so-called “Imposter Syndrome” is really us, and how much is a world that’s yet to fully accept women as equally competent and visionary leaders?
I remember chairing a meeting as a 31-year-old director leading a team of more than 100 people and a portfolio of publications. In said meeting, the room was predominantly male. Despite my title and position of leadership, the conversation kept deviating, almost as if to put me through an invisible but palpable ‘validity test’. Were my strategies insightful enough? Was I vocal enough without dominating the discussion? Even in my position of power, I felt I had to continue proving my right to be there. Terms like “prove-it-again bias”, coined by Joan C. Williams, reveal that women continuously have to reassert their authority and competence. Such constant reaffirmation erodes self-confidence, perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy where women question their worth, not because they inherently lack self-assurance, but because they are continuously made to feel ‘less than’. This isn’t ‘Imposter Syndrome’; it’s a systemic problem.
I’ve personally navigated through what’s been coined as the ‘glass cliff’, taking on high-risk leadership roles that are statistically more likely to end in failure. And guess what? For many women, they often do end in failure – not because the woman leading the charge is incapable but because she’s set up to fail from the get-go. For years, I’ve worked to break down these barriers through the RISE programs, but it’s not enough for us to tackle it individually. This issue requires a systemic overhaul.
In one of my RISE programs, I met a young woman engineer who had been given the responsibility of leading a challenging project that had seen multiple failures. When she successfully turned it around, instead of being celebrated, she was questioned for her methods. This isn’t Imposter Syndrome; it’s a biased system that questions the capabilities of women even when they produce results. And it’s a problem we need to address not just for ourselves but for the young women who are the future of the corporate world.
Yes, we all face moments of doubt and insecurity; that’s human. However, let’s not conveniently lump all challenges that women face into a “syndrome” that needs curing. We don’t need to be fixed; the system does. Let’s put our energy into changing a culture that perpetuates gender inequality, biases, and glass ceilings—or cliffs, as it were.
As a woman who has had the privilege of rising and helping others rise, I can say unequivocally that it’s time to shift our focus from diagnosing women with “Imposter Syndrome” to diagnosing the environments in which we operate. The call for change isn’t just about women; it’s about fostering a more inclusive, fair, and productive society for everyone. And that, my friends, is where the real magic happens.