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Impostor syndrome is genuine threat to women’s workplace advancement

So here’s my dirty little secret: I’m an impostor. There, I said it. It only took me 20 years and lots of sleepless nights worrying about what other people might think. But now that it’s out in the open, the truth, I believe, will set me free.
Photo credit: Alfonso Arnold

So here’s my dirty little secret: I’m an impostor.

There, I said it. It only took me 20 years and lots of sleepless nights worrying about what other people might think. But now that it’s out in the open, the truth, I believe, will set me free.

What I’m talking about – for those business associates and friends who might be a bit nervous at this point – is the much-discussed “impostor syndrome.” That’s the phenomenon whereby high-achieving individuals think they don’t belong – that they’re frauds and it’s only a matter of time before everybody figures them out. It’s an idea that’s been around since the 1970s, when U.S. psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance started studying the issue among her students.

Back then, it was largely seen as a “women’s” issue. But since the study came out nearly 40 years ago, Clance and others have realized it’s something that men feel in equal measure – but don’t verbalize. I can relate. As the CEO and majority owner of a successful tech company, and someone who has served on numerous boards, I work mostly with men – men of varying levels of accomplishment and talent. But what unites them all, at least superficially, is an outward confidence that they belong.

On paper, I should belong too. For 17 years I’ve led, a profitable and growing company with no debt. We’ve built relationships with Fortune 500 clients around the world and have a widely admired corporate culture. I’ve won several local and national awards for entrepreneurship and leadership. And yet every time I walk into a room of my peers, my heart skips a beat and the nagging self-doubts resurface. Why am I here? Did somebody make a mistake in inviting me?

While the impostor syndrome affects men and women in equal measure, what doesn’t have such parity is confidence. A recent Harvard Business Review article makes it clear: there is an undeniable “confidence gap” between the sexes, and it’s having a profound effect on who chooses what professions – and who ultimately climbs to the top. The problem is particularly acute in science- and technology-driven organizations like mine: of my employees, fewer than 20% are women, and only one works on the technical side of our business.

So what can be done about it – this confidence gap, this lack of female representation in the field, this feeling of “not belonging” – for those who do make it to the top? I think the answer is threefold. First, we need to find ways of encouraging girls earlier in life to believe that math and science are viable pursuits.

At Science World, data collected by University of British Columbia Prof. Andrew Baron indicates 26% more boys than girls under the age of two are being brought to the facility’s Living Lab. That’s a decision being made by parents that has long-term implications.

The school system also needs to create equal opportunities for excellence. In B.C., the provincial government has taken an important step by introducing mandatory coding courses into the K-12 curriculum – but teachers play a critical role too in ensuring girls get equal time, as boys are often quicker to put up their hands.

Second, companies need to go out of their way to attract and retain female employees. That’s something I’m hyper-aware of at, where just five out of every 100 technical job applications we get are from women. While an increasing number of employers offer flexible work hours and family-friendly policies to encourage women to stay and grow within a company, it’s not enough. We need to put women in leadership roles – and mentor them toward that goal – to ensure better representation within our ranks and build clear paths for promotions and raises.

Third,  the female leaders of the business world need to speak out more – to be both seen and heard. That’s what I’m doing. As a younger woman, I had a huge fear of public speaking. But I was determined to confront it, taking courses at the Dale Carnegie leadership centre to try to lick the problem. It still took another decade of pushing myself to accept those stress-inducing speaking offers. Now, I regularly speak to audiences in the hundreds – and with each passing speech, each passing year, it gets a little easier. I also make an effort to take on a young woman in technology as a mentee each year so she can learn from my mistakes, and we work on planning out career/life goals.

When there are more of us “girls” sitting around the decision-making table, giving keynote addresses or passing on our knowledge, it’s only a matter of time before the confidence gap shrinks and that sense of not belonging starts to abate. But until then, we need to face our fears head-on – and embrace our inner impostor. •

Cybele Negris ([email protected]) is president, CEO and co-founder of, Canada’s original .CA registrar.