It’s so Much Bigger than Imposter Syndrome…

5 minute read

I live in a male dominated household: one husband, two sons. Even the dog is male.  Last night I realised that, in between my efforts to work, keep up with Brexit and be on top of the latest fashion trends, a hideous omission had occurred.

Wait!” I shrieked, in a non-gender specific way, “I forgot to teach you about diversity in the workplace.”

Turns out, if you want to clear a room quickly, that’s the phrase that pays.  Not that my sons weren’t desperate for my ground-breaking analysis on sexual politics in business.  No, it turns out they knew it all already.

S’alright”, they muttered, leaving.  “We did it in sociology.”

Phew. What a relief. My work is done. 

And yet, I have a spooky sixth sense that a few hours ‘doing diversity’ in term two may not be enough to smash the patriarchy.  But, as Gloria Steinem says, ‪”The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.”

So, as we keep moving – slowly – to a more equal world, I thought about a question often levelled at women, “do we hold ourselves back in the workplace?” Is it ‘our fault’ that only six FTSE CEOs are women? Should we take responsibility for ‘allowing’ men to earn more than us?  Those six FTSE CEOs earn 54% of the salaries of their male counterparts, a trend that continues further down the food chain.

It’s not helpful to apportion blame. What lies behind those figures is hundreds of years of women being excluded from professional, public and political life. Women have been denied basic rights in the past (to vote, to own property, to have agency over their own bodies); we’ve lacked legal protections and endure pay disparities.  These are all external effects of the lack of equality between women and men.

“So, as we keep moving – slowly – to a more equal world, I thought about a question often levelled at women, “do we hold ourselves back in the workplace?” ”

And the impact of that is that, over decades, it has determined how we see ourselves, what potential we allow ourselves to dream of and how ambitious we are.  Its shaped our behaviour to adapt and survive in places where we had no legal, political or financial power so that we became effective at avoiding conflict, being empathetic, being ‘people pleasers’, asking for permission and wanting/needing everything to be ‘perfect’ before we speak up or speak out. Behaviours that, decades later, don’t serve us well when it’s time to put ourselves forward for that next promotion.

And yet, reading this, I’m sure you all know of, or are yourself, a strong, intelligent woman who has no problem articulating her point of view and has no problem getting her voice heard in a meeting.  I don’t think women’s confidence or the perceived lack of it, is the problem. The issues holding women back at work are so much bigger than one person’s struggle with ‘imposter syndrome’.  The statistics are sobering. Despite the gender pay gap decreasing over the past 20 years, women still earn 17.9% less than men.  We’re dealing with decades of sexist stereotyping from childhood onwards that discourages women from having certain ‘male’ careers or any career at all.  We’re subjected to unconscious (and sometimes conscious) bias throughout employment.  Too many women suffer sexual and verbal harassment in the workplace and face detriment to their career if they speak up about it and too many women are written off or marginalised when they have children.

So far, so depressing.  But progress is being made within the establishment structures in business, society, politics and law that stand in the way of leadership diversity.  Problem is, it’s slow.  Accelerating the progress, success and retention of female leaders is clearly good for women but it’s also good for business. Global companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry peers. And in the UK, greater gender diversity on the senior-exec team corresponded to the highest performance uplift: for every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBITDA rose by 3.5%.

So how can women accelerate their impact and influence and get themselves to where they want to be, faster?

You may not be immediately able to dismantle centuries of male structured workplaces but you are able to take a front footed approach to a career on your terms. A useful checklist for anyone wishing to take stock and work to accelerate their progression is to think of the three ‘I’s:

Imprint – clarity on goals and strategic focus to identify the imprint you want to leave on the business.

What are your goals? (Yes, you may want to be a CEO but you may also have the goal of a more flexible working week or to retire by 50 or to only work with a specific set of clients.  Too often we go with what turns up, rather than go after what we want.)

What do you want to change? (And what do you need to do to make that change?).  What’s in your control and what’s not?

What legacy do you want to leave in the business and beyond?

How do you build on your strengths and identify core areas of expertise to develop to make a tangible difference?

Impact – improving presence and personal impact.

It’s not just about ‘speaking loudly’ in meetings as one (male) CEO recently mentioned as the answer to why women’s voices are not heard at work.  When a profession has been so male dominated for so long, as financial services has, women are dealing with decades of institutionalised behaviours.  Progress requires men to listen (and act) on women’s voices and proposals but women can advance the impact of their communication by being bolder in tone (no more apologetic language, “If I may…sorry, but…do you mind?”), by refusing to be interrupted (‘I haven’t finished’) and not being afraid to take up space (both physically and by taking time to say what is important so that others feel the weight of your message.)

“I don’t think women’s confidence or the perceived lack of it, is the problem. The issues holding women back at work are so much bigger than one person’s struggle with ‘imposter syndrome’.”

Get comfortable with communicating confidently. Its frustrating to see smart people in business who derail their own progress with self-deprecation. Marlène Schiappa, the French Secretary of State for Equality, is an eloquent speaker and committed reformer. She refers to this issue specifically when she talks about women needing to take responsibility for communicating their own strengths. ‘Please,’ she says, ‘do not belittle yourselves with the language you use. I never want to hear “I have a little job” or “I have a little project”. If you must use an adjective, make it ‘great’ or ‘important’.  Small changes like this can improve how you communicate and the results you get.

Influence – developing the strategy and skills to progress in the organisation

Many of the women we coach feel that if they do a great job, their work will be recognised and they will be singled out for promotion and progression.  And, at times, with a supportive line manager, that does happen but it’s a very passive approach to take.  Those who progress more quickly through an organisation are often those who are good at their own PR.  They realise it’s their job to make sure they’re in control of the story they want key influencers and sponsors to know about them.  Should you have to do this?  Surely doing the good work is enough?  Only up to a point.  Make sure you amplify your accomplishments. If this feels uncomfortable, or big-headed, include others such as your support staff in your accolades.  But make sure the people who need to know what you have achieved, and what your ambitions are, do.

I’d like to think that, by the time my sons are in the workplace, the changes that are slowly being made in business, society, politics and law that create leadership diversity, will be the norm.  To speed up progress, more women need to gain senior positions and make those changes happen.  Because then, EVERYONE, will benefit.

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Louisa Clarke

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