“Don’t be silly all women have imposter syndrome.”
A male coach had offered to help one of my clients with her imposter syndrome and when she told him that she thought her problem was possibly the opposite, he cut her off with those words.
This story made my blood boil. I’ve long had issue with the term imposter syndrome. I wrote in From Imposter Syndrome to Pioneer Syndrome:
Perhaps imposter syndrome isn’t a bad thing. If you’re feeling a little bit intimidated and out of your element, it’s likely a sign that you’re playing in the big leagues. You don’t want to be the smartest, most accomplished person in the room. That means you know exactly how to do your job, and that’s boring. There’s plenty more growth opportunities to be the small fish in the big pond and learn from all the smart, inspiring people around you. Perhaps imposter syndrome could be a good thing because then you’re in the right room and ready to be stretched.
This past week, I’ve been leading two separate female leadership groups and also spoke at a Clubhouse fireside chat on “How Women Advance in Tech Leadership.” The shared stories and experiences reminded me that we continue to exist in a corporate world where both conscious and unconscious bias towards women happens every single day. It’s the system of the world we live in. My context is as an Asian woman in tech where my ethnicity happens to be in the majority, unlike other people of color, or immigrants for whom English is a second language. Sexism in the workplace is of bigger personal context than race. So many of these stories are even more devastating for black or LatinX women who have to sort out both racism and sexism, but that is not my story. (If you’re curious, I try to sort out some race thoughts in My Asian Privilege).
My client had shared her story as a response to this Harvard Business Review (HBR) article Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey This article was the first bridge for me between imposter syndrome and systemic bias against women and people of color. When starting a new job, especially for high achievers who have excelled and reached for the next tier job in their successful career progression, it’s entirely normal to feel that you might not belong, that you’re scared, and intimidated and worried that you might not perform well. We all feel this. When I worked at Facebook, after a period of time when I built trust and relationships with people, every single person, male or female, has confessed that they’ve felt imposter syndrome. Yet its women and people of color who continue to experience this throughout their career. The HBR article explains:
As white men progress, their feelings of doubt usually abate as their work and intelligence are validated over time. They’re able to find role models who are like them, and rarely (if ever) do others question their competence, contributions, or leadership style. Women experience the opposite. Rarely are we invited to a women’s career development conference where a session on “overcoming imposter syndrome” is not on the agenda.
Yes, there’s so much more that companies and leaders can do in these years after #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, and as leaders we must continue to push for these changes. However, today, we still have to live our lives within this system and continue to thrive as female leaders in tech.
These three points are frequent themes that I touch upon to help my female, people of color, and immigrant clients advance in their careers and companies.
1. Understand That Bias is part of the System
You’re not crazy. Yes, that gaslighting incident did happen. You weren’t imagining it. And it’s not your fault. Countless women and people of color have experienced this. You are not alone. You don’t need to be fixed when someone else calls you aggressive, emotional, non-confident, or too quiet.
As a designer, I’m responsible for coming up with design solutions within the constraints of an entire system. At Facebook, we had to design within an existing system. Newsfeed was a great place to showcase new products we wanted to promote. There’s an existing notifications and navigation system. Creating new video formats needed to live within the existing single app that was Facebook. Every design decision fits within the constraints of a greater system.
Similarly, we all live within constraints of a larger system. In tech, most positions of power are occupied by white males. Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, exists. In this societal system of race and gender, some of us have the drive and energy to file discrimination lawsuits, organize movements to change the system, participate in protests, or simply share our stories widely. Others of us may not have this same energy. We’re too exhausted, and are barely surviving our full-time jobs and identity as a female leader. That’s OK. Know that we are all doing the best we can within this biased system. You have permission to acknowledge the system.
2. Know Your Unique Leadership Strengths
Within this system, know that there is an existing language of leadership style and with a pre-existing western bias. It’s a bias towards confidence, being extroverted, and claiming the space to express your opinion. While this system exists, you must also take the time to understand your unique leadership strengths.
Every leader is different. You were born with a particular personality and strengths. Over the years you have refined and developed additional values based on the experience of your life. This experience has been shaped by your gender, race, and cultural identity among other things. You can continue to build upon this foundation of strength and values by trying on different leadership traits and habits. Experiment with them. Try to see what traits feel like an evolution of your uniqueness.
3. Build Relationships
Relationships matter. We spend a lot of time in our professional life, even if it’s currently over video-conference. Thrive as a female leader by creating relationships one at a time. Over the years, this support system will prove invaluable. I frequently advise my clients to follow these three paths to build relationships:
- Find your people. Find the people who make you feel the most safe and comfortable, who give you a sense of belonging. It might be people who speak your same native language or come from similar racial and cultural backgrounds. It might be other women. It might be other people who went through orientation with you, or a buddy that’s assigned to you. It’s OK if these people change over time. And as you spend more time with people at work and from past workplaces, start to cultivate and build this network of your people. If these people don’t exist within your current workplace, seek out online groups. I’ve found both Moms in Tech and Elpha to be invaluable female networks.
- Find your allies. Look around for people who are peers or more senior to you. See if these people could help be mentors or sponsors. Watch how people show up in meetings to see if they might be sympathetic. These are your allies. Start confiding in them and asking for help. There are good people in every company. I know many white male allies would love to help and leverage their privilege to raise up others.
- Build trust with your key partners. There are key people you must work with to get your job done—your boss, key collaborators, key reviewers of your work, your team, and your reports. Open up and share your stories about your particular perspective. Starting by sharing often invites the other person to listen, and in turn also share.
Bonus: For Allies
In our Clubhouse conversation, a male ally raised his hand and asked how he could help. He wasn’t a VP with a titled position of power and he wanted to know how he could support his female colleagues from where he was. We shared some ideas:
- Amplify the voices that are less heard. Ask to hear opinions from quieter people in the room. If you hear a female colleague get interrupted or talked over, say something: “Can we go back to Jean’s point? I’d like to hear more from her.” If you hear a male colleague take credit for someone else’s idea, state: “David, you added some interesting points to Ellie’s road map suggestions…”
- Point out any examples of conscious or unconscious bias you see. You can do so in a gentle 1–1 conversation with a colleague: “I noticed in yesterday’s meeting that you called upon more of the men to ask questions than the women. I’m curious if you were aware of that behavior.” Or if you’re lucky enough to be in a company that encourages this conversation, you can point it out as it happens in a bigger group. When I’ve been in interview debriefs or conversations comparing performance review ratings for a variety of people, I’ve asked the question: “Would we use those same words to describe Donna if she were male?”
- I’ve been in some large meetings where my idea was re-stated by a male colleague and the room gave him credit. My anger and shame (“Why didn’t I say something in the moment?”) have been mitigated by allies messaging me or talking to me afterwards and letting me know that they heard me, they saw what happened. So even if you don’t feel like you can to say something in the moment, always reach out later.
We exist within a male-dominated world of tech. I’ve heard the stories from countless women and people of color and experienced it myself many times. To thrive as a female leader understand that you’re not alone in this system, know your unique strengths, and continue the work to build relationships and community. There’s a lot of allies out there. We can all do better.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in the summer of 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching which you can follow. If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, come learn more.