Leadership & Productivity

How real is imposter syndrome
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How real is imposter syndrome?

19 Mins

Imposter syndrome is a myth, according to new research that crunched the numbers from 10,000 survey respondents worldwide. But what does this mean for diversity and inclusion targets for UK businesses?

Many high achievers around the world share a dirty little secret. Conventional wisdom calls this “imposter syndrome”; that internally, these highly capable individuals feel like they’re living a lie and their accomplishments are the result of luck rather than merit.

The term has been bandied about to explain the gender gap when it comes to high profile roles in senior management, revealing that these feelings of chronic self-doubt despite tangible proof of their competence usually plagues women in the workforce.

Yet, according to new research from Wundamail, both men and women feel equally equipped for management positions, and are confident advocating for themselves in a high-pressure work situation.

If it’s not a crippling feeling of inadequacy coupled with the age-old adage to ‘fake it till you make it’, why has gender parity progress worldwide ground to a halt? The proportion of women in the global workforce stalling at 15%, so what’s the actual issue?

Wundamail examined job security, hiring and promotions, advocating skills and career ambition. The results suggest that it’s less about women feeling like frauds and more about visibility, having salary related conversations, and unconscious biases.


65% of men and 67% of women feel they “could easily do their manager’s job to a better standard than them”.


The gap opens up when it comes to ambition and practical negotiation skills, according to the research that surveyed 10,000 gainfully employed people in the UK and the US.

When asked whether they would “aspire to take on their manager’s role in the future”, 72% of men claimed they would, compared to just 47% of women.

On average, men were twice as likely to talk finance in career conversations, whereas women preferred to focus discussion on qualitative factors such as skills, achievements or career progression.

Confidence and conflict: The real C-bombs

According to the survey, men and women appear to feel equally assured in terms of authority, position and ability. The biggest differentiator between the genders is in how women deal with appearing assertive, backing their position in a work setting, and actual confrontation.


Over half of women say they only “confront someone when it is required”, while a further quarter “avoid confrontation at all costs”.


In addition, 84% of women have previously feigned agreement with someone’s opinion “purely to avoid confrontation”. On the other hand, over half of men describe themselves as “confrontational within reason”, with a further quarter claiming that they actively “relish confrontation”.

This suggests a major inconsistency: women’s perceived “confidence” levels don’t match up with their confrontation skills. On average, women were three times less comfortable using assertive language or dealing with conflict.

Is confrontation and conflict still necessary in business?

Bridging the gender gap in the UK by 2025 would add as much as £150bn to the economy. According to CMI Women, the UK economy will need two million new managers by 2024 – and 1.5 million will need to be women to achieve gender balance.

Statistics show just how far we still have to go with gender equality in the workplace.  

  • 14 companies in the FTSE 350 have no women, or just one woman on the board 
  • 83% of women have witnessed women struggling to make their views heard.
  • 85% of women have heard inappropriate remarks at work . 
  • 61% have seen gender bias in pay rewards.
  • 67% of women are more likely than men to feel uncomfortable when expressing themselves in a work environment.

More women in management have noticed unfairness in the workplace, yet how many of them speak up about it?

Backing your ideas, skills and capabilities is just as important as standing your ground when challenged. This, according to these new findings, is the sore spot holding so many women back.

The Wundamail research suggests that the bottleneck occurs when women fail to follow through when asserting themselves if it may lead to a confrontation.

‘FOMO’ and Imposter Syndrome are global issues

After 14 years of coaching and training women across the world, Hira Ali has discovered that many of the challenges facing women defy country boundaries and are, in fact, universal. Ali authored Her Way To The Top when she became aware of the internal obstacles women face in their career path – and how similar they are around the world. Ali’s own research counters the Wundamail research, suggesting that social conditioning has made women more susceptible to imposter syndrome, most commonly manifested as an internal monologue of ‘Who am I to succeed’?

She initially began her career in Karachi and started to see a specific set of issues impacting women, which she attributed to cultural reasons. The same challenges came up while living and working in Dubai, and it was when she moved to London just three years ago, that the trend in global difficulties faced by women was reaffirmed for the third time.

“When I came to London, I had thought that there would be many more women defying the odds, as opposed to encountering pay gaps, lack of representation and promotions – issues commonly found in the eastern culture – but this was not the case,” she says.

“I realised that western women were running into the same problems as females elsewhere. It was at this point I truly realised the extent of the internal challenges – I figured out that even though the intensity varied from place to place, many of these problems are universal!


“My own experience had made it evident that most of the aforementioned challenges are more gender specific than they are background specific.”


To test her conclusion, Ali created an international survey of  women across the globe including Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Canada, Australia, Africa, the UK and the US. More than 300 women answered a simple question: What are the top challenges holding you back in your career? The results were incredibly similar, despite the differences in background and nationality.

Not only did this confirm her theory, but the findings were unusually reassuring. She says: “Sometimes the mere awareness that you are not alone gives you a sense of unimaginable hope and strength.”

According to Ali, internal obstacles include: FOMO (fear of missing out), Imposter Syndrome, fear of failure, social conditioning, confidence gap, failure to self-promote, time poverty, struggling to say no, and perfectionism.

External obstacles include: sexism, lack of childcare options, sexual harassment, lack of flexibility, and the lack of a support system at home.

Do women still need to be told to ‘believe in themselves’?

According to the Wundamail research, women today don’t need to be told to “believe in themselves” – they already do. What they do need are practical negotiation skills, actionable training and role models in senior positions. To achieve this, businesses should look to improve manager support, mentorship, and impartial hiring and promotion practices.

Ali’s research suggests that while the severity of self-doubt and depends on the cultural and geographical issues, but it still exists at a fundamental level.


This suggests a balance needs to be struck between encouraging and advocating women in the workplace, and actually supporting them through actions and policies.


Antoinette Dale Henderson is a women’s leadership expert and a TEDx speaker helping women harness their full potential, shake stereotypes and power up in business.

“Many women suppress ‘unfeminine emotions’ and try not to rattle anyone’s cages,” she says.

According to Dale Henderson, studies show women feel less able to speak up, they are discriminated against at recruitment and they are less bold when putting themselves forward for opportunities.

Despite recent advances in gender equality, women are prone to staying in their ‘safe zone’ and holding back their full amount of knowledge and experience,” she adds. “The world is still not used to powerful women – as shown by current politics where men are forgiven for their undesirable traits and women are not.”

In her new book, Power Up: The smart woman’s guide to unleashing her full potential, she outlines how women can break out of these psychological expectations and truly express themselves in a work context.

How to step into your power

Throughout her research, Dale Henderson met women who feel just as comfortable exercising “hard power – being directive, even summoning and channelling anger when required – as they do exercising soft power – for example, choosing to remain quiet to give others space to share their points of view.”

According to Dale Henderson, there are ten key qualities that women in power exercise, and that are available to everyone in a work context. 

  1. Be driven, purposeful and clear about what you’d like to achieve.  
  2. Be aware of your natural strengths, as well as your weaknesses, dedicating time to reflect on and address the opportunities and threats you may face. 
  3. Be conscious of your values and beliefs and how to stay true to them through the various roles you play in all aspects of life.
  4. Be clear on their boundaries and areas of flex – In which areas are you prepared to compromise and what are the lines you will not cross?
  5. Draw on all sources of power, choosing when to lead from the front and when to join the ranks and lead from the back, with and through people. 
  6. Be comfortable ‘standing in your power’, with a strong posture, bold movements, a clear voice and direct message. 
  7. Manage your own emotional state and regulate your moods, minimise negative self-talk, handle nerves and remain cool-headed, even when others may be losing theirs. 
  8. Conserve your energy, knowing when to power up and power down.
  9. Be aware of your innate magnetic power of attraction and able to ‘switch it on’ to get what you want. 
  10. Be willing to sacrifice being liked for being respected, while still appreciating and building relationships in the workplace.  

Imposter syndrome may still exist, but it’s not a gendered issue

While the new Wundamail report says that women aren’t necessarily being held back by imposter syndrome, it doesn’t suggest that the psychological issue doesn’t exist.


Another study reveals that the effect of imposter syndrome is not gendered and has a severe impact on the UK workforce as a whole.


Research into this phenomena by media agency UM asked 500 UK workers across sectors if they had ever felt undeserving of praise or rewards, felt unaccomplished or been fearful that they would be publicly revealed to be as not as smart as others think.

It also asked if they had ever thought they didn’t deserve the success they’d attained, deliberately downplayed their efforts or considered their accomplishments to be a fluke. More than three-quarters agreed with at least one of these statements.

Office workers are 18% more likely than the average adult to experience it. 79% of women and 74% of men have experienced imposter syndrome during their careers, yet only 15% of the UK population actually know what it is. 79% of sufferers also believe they appear outwardly confident to others.


Those aged 18 to 24 are also 19% more likely than the average adult to experience imposter syndrome.


Imposter syndrome has a number of typical symptoms which can be experienced on a scale of severity, says psychologist and life coach, Jivan Dempsey.

If you suffer with imposter syndrome these are the most common signs:

  • You may have difficulty accepting praise. This isn’t a false modesty as you truly believe you don’t deserve it and may attribute your personal success to someone else. You may also feel anxious that success brings more responsibility and advancement which you feel you didn’t deserve in the first place. This self-sabotage limits you from reaching your true potential.
  • You may have very high personal standards for yourself and for other people. You are a perfectionist and will overwork and overachieve in order to be the best. You may see yourself as a “hero” looking to achieve impossible standards of perfection, flawlessly, to the point of burn out and often disappointed that others rarely meet the same exacting standards as you.
  • Failure is not an option for you. This self imposed pressure builds and builds as you get more successful, and it fuels greater levels of anxiety creating an internal cycle of fear and paralysis …. so you work even harder to overcome the fear of failure. And so it becomes a poisonous vicious circle.
  • You won’t show confidence worrying others think you lack the intelligence or talent to back it up. You also assume everyone else is achieving success without the same struggles as you, feeding into your insecurities that there’s something wrong with you.
  • You worry you’re not enough…consistently and overwhelmingly feeling you will be discovered as a fraud.

What can help?

Imposter syndrome is actually quite common and there are things that you can do to help in a healthy and proactive way, Dempsey adds. Here are his tips for countering that niggling negative inner voice.

  • Speak out. Talk to a trusted friend, family member or a therapist. They can provide you with a safe space to help you to open up about your experiences and talk through the situation and distinguish it against the reality of your situation and help you to understand it more.
  • Celebrate success. Let them help you celebrate your success, acknowledge your skills and positive outcomes with a written record of your achievements
  • No one is perfect. Trying to always be perfect is impossible so you need to accept yourself with all your flaws. This is part of building self-esteem and self-worth, increasing personal resilience and happiness
  • Challenge negative thinking. Develop coping strategies to challenge negative thoughts and create positive thinking patterns.
    Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), keeping a written record of your achievements with a daily journal, celebrating success, deep breathing techniques, such as mindfulness, to help overcome emotions and feelings of overwhelm are all helpful in overcoming imposter syndrome and boost self esteem and confidence.

While imposter syndrome may not be the main thing holding women in the workplace back, multitudes of research suggests that it still holds a lot of merit in siloing people from achieving their true potential. The overarching message from these experts remains to find the confidence to challenge negative self-talk, and that starts with checking in with yourself at regular intervals and being kinder to yourself.

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