A few days ago, I saw an Instagram post announcing the Orange Flower Awards which recognise the power of women’s voices. I read about it with curiosity, but didn’t give it a second thought.
I received an e mail from Women’s Web seeking self-nominations for the Orange Flower Awards, and I ignored it. Yes, I write occasionally, but I didn’t think my work was good enough for me to nominate myself in any of the categories.
A past winner especially tagged me and asked me to look at nominating myself, and I told her that I was not ready yet. “That is up to you”, she said, “but I think you should nominate yourself.”
For the next few hours, I thought of nothing else. Why was I so reluctant to nominate myself for something I was clearly eligible for? We were just talking about nominations, not about whether or not I would win. In any case, wins and losses have never mattered to me as much as participation. When it comes to experiences, my philosophy is that doing something new, giving it my best shot and not succeeding is better than not trying at all. What then explains my extreme reluctance to self-nominate myself for the Orange Flower Awards?
The answer was not hard to fine. I was suffering from Imposter Syndrome. I was holding myself back because I had convinced myself that I was not qualified enough. I had struggled with Imposter syndrome all my life, and just when I thought I had conquered it, it popped up where I least expected it.
What then is Imposter Syndrome?
First described by Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, Impostor Syndrome is a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments, and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud. People who suffer from imposter syndrome are often high achievers who attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and live in constant fear of being “found out”.
Whether we notice it or not, Imposter Syndrome permeates the formal and informal workplace. In almost every office, there are people who never push themselves forward for a prime assignment, despite being eminently suitable for it. I was one of them in the early days of my professional life- even when I wanted a project very badly, I would never ask for it, always hoping that someone else would nominate my name instead. It was only when I found those assignments repeatedly going to people far less qualified than me that I lodged a feeble protest, only to be told that I had been passed up because they didn’t know I was interested. I was told that had I indicated my interest, it would certainly have been given the assignments because I was the most suited for them. Did I learn from any of these experiences? I don’t think so. Though I got a little better at asking for what I wanted, I still struggle to break free from doubting my own self-worth.
Are women more likely to suffer from Imposter Syndrome?
While Imposter Syndrome, unlike what was originally believed, is gender agnostic, more women suffer from it than men. In a much quoted study by KPMG where 750 high performing women executives were polled, it came out that as many as 75% of the women had personally experienced Imposter Syndrome at some point or the other in their career. Further, 85% of them believed that women commonly suffer from Imposter Syndrome, and 74% reported that their male counterparts experience self-doubt much less than they do.
An article in Forbes quoted from an internal study conducted by Hewlett-Packard which said, “Women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.”
This is a phenomenon that anyone who has been involved in recruitment is familiar with. I had once placed an advertisement which specified that the candidate should have between 3 to 5 years relevant work experience. One female candidate (who I eventually hired) fell short by 3 months, but apologised for that in the cover letter and said she was applying only because she was extremely keen on the job. Almost all the men who applied had far less than 3 years experience (two were even fresh graduates), but didn’t feel the need to explain how other factors might mitigate the lack of experience. As someone who would never dream of applying for anything unless I qualified for it, I was quite surprised by the difference in behaviour between people of the two genders. It was only after understanding how Imposter Syndrome affects women more than men that I could put the experience in its proper context.
One possible reason why women, especially women in male dominated industries, suffer from Imposter Syndrome more than men could be that women are conditioned into believing that it is easier for them because of their gender. From a mythical ‘gender’ quota in management institutes and during placements, to faster promotions, women are told “It is easier for you because you are a girl”. Though none of it is true, it is repeated so often that many women start to believe that they owe more to “luck” than skill, and that they will soon be “found out”. This affects everything from applying for jobs, seeking challenging assignments and accepting a promotion in the existing job.
Imposter Syndrome particularly affects racial, caste, religious or gender minority groups, because there are fewer role models for them to emulate and therefore greater chances of feeling that they do not fit in.
How can one overcome Imposter Syndrome?
The first step in overcoming Imposter Syndrome is accepting that you suffer from it. You need to then take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, and see how they match up to the requirements of the job. You then need to remind yourself that are you good enough for what you are doing, and seek help from others if needed. A good mentor can play a very useful role in helping you recognise your expertise and in identifying the areas where you need to build up your skills. Sometimes, taking on a mentoring role also helps- you end up increasing your own confidence, when you help someone less experienced than you are.
I am glad that the Orange Flower Awards seek self-nomination. High achieving women often suffer from self-doubt, and this is a good way to remind us that we are good enough. My Imposter Syndrome certainly raised its ugly head and tried to convince me that I was inadequate. By filling up the self-nomination form, I have already won the biggest award- the battle with my own self-doubt.
I hope this account gives more women the confidence to apply for the Orange Flower Awards. As the hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Take the shot.