How To Handle ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Women often feel like they don’t deserve their success, particularly in male-dominated fields like tech, says Kay Taylor, SVP in the office of the CIO of FLEETCOR. Here’s how to break out of that mindset.
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Female information professionals must resist the “imposter syndrome” that all too often adversely impacts female professionals, especially in male-dominated fields like tech.

Kay Taylor has been there. Taylor is senior vice president, office of the CIO at FLEETCOR Technologies, an Atlanta-based global provider of business payment solutions, including e-payables and payment cards for automated accounts payable and in-the-field employee expenses. She spoke with StrategicCIO360 about her own experiences, why it’s important to be open about your doubts and why we all benefit when women hold leadership positions.

What is imposter syndrome?

We break the glass ceiling and then doubt ourselves for doing it. Three-quarters of executive women across industries have experienced imposter syndrome at certain points throughout their careers, according to KPMG research. Female executives in male-dominated industries like finance and technology can sometimes feel it the worst—regardless of their high accomplishments, commitment to their jobs or progress made to climb to, or toward, the top.

Although we’re living in an age of increased female empowerment, many top-performing women can’t shake the feeling that they don’t truly deserve their success or that their accomplishments will be questioned. I know as I have been there.

Added to Merriam-Webster in 2020, the dictionary defines imposter syndrome as “a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by a fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.” Although the definition is gender-neutral, the term came about in 1978 to describe a lack of confidence experienced by high-achieving women, despite their exceptional academic and professional accomplishments. 

Fast-forward to today, and it’s no wonder: According to the Women in the Workplace 2021 report by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, women have made important gains in representation and are rising as strong leaders in corporate America. But their work often goes unrecognized. The report reveals females have taken on more work compared to men at the same level, do more to support their teams and advance their companies’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and are more likely to champion women of color. Yet their efforts are often neither recognized nor rewarded. 

So, they work harder to prove themselves, often with a nagging feeling that they are, indeed, underqualified and in over their heads after all.

Strong, invincible women—why the second-guessing?

I’ve been in the corporate world for about 25 years, moving up the ranks and into my current position. And while I’ve deserved every step of progress in the journey, there have been times when imposter syndrome reared its ugly head.

More than once, while working at various organizations, I’ve wondered, “Did I get here because they are trying to meet a certain women-in-leadership-roles quota?” Or when I’ve hit a roadblock, I’ve told myself, “You really aren’t qualified enough for this job.”

Thankfully, I’ve turned to other women—and men, too—and shared my distorted perceptions and feelings of inadequacy, usually to find support and always to be told I’m not giving myself enough credit for earning my seat at the table.

What can be done to counter these feelings?

If you come across a woman who is doubting her own success or is suffering from a bout of imposterism, you should suggest that she talk about it. Imposter syndrome is more common than many people realize—it infects everyone from high school honor students to Nobel Prize winners. The more we have open conversations about our challenges, the more we realize we are not alone. 

Encourage the woman to list out and own her accomplishments, going back as far as memory serves. She should keep the list handy and pull it out when she needs a little reminder of her awesomeness. Suggest that she talk to a mentor or someone she admires. They will likely rightsize her back into owning up to the success she has earned and deserves. Hopefully she will come away with boosted spirits and a little extra pep in her step.

Prompt the woman to envision herself in successful situations. This is particularly helpful before knee-shaking events, such as making a speech, giving a presentation to the CEO or interviewing for that next big promotion or career move.

Most importantly, remind the woman to give herself a break. It is okay to not have all the answers. 

How can women find success in the IT industry?

In the article, “What Makes Women in Technology Great CIOs,” Gartner reports that the shift to digital business, accelerated by the pandemic, has changed the expectations of CIOs to lead their companies’ digital transformation journey. Further, the article shares that while women should have the upper hand in landing the CIO job in this changed business environment, only 11 percent of CIOs are female.

Senior leaders should understand that when women climb the ranks in technology and occupy seats in the C-Suite, they bring a unique mix of leadership skills. These include collaboration, flexibility, strategic thinking, empathy, assertiveness, risk-taking, persuasiveness and team building.

Consider this: When women hold leadership positions, companies have higher financial performance, improved team dynamics, greater productivity, better adherence to project schedules and lower project costs, among other benefits. 

Yet, imposter syndrome continues creeping up. 

Let’s be clear: Imposter syndrome can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual proclivity, religious affiliation or nationality. However, speaking from personal experience and from talking to other women holding executive positions, it’s a growing epidemic for women.

Knowing this, we all—and women in particular—should be open and honest about our own struggles with imposter syndrome and provide positive or constructive feedback to help female direct reports and colleagues succeed. We should suggest they find mentors who can help them pave the way toward success. And we should educate senior leadership about imposter syndrome so they can do a better job at reinforcing the strengths of the women they have assigned to leadership positions—and truly to all employees. We are, after all, in the era of the Great Resignation. And stellar employees, who we all want to surround ourselves with, are worth their weight in gold.

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