A Golden Era for Women Means Facing Imposter Syndrome Head On to Get Your Seat at the Boardroom Table

2 months ago

In case you missed it, the Golden State is making moves into a golden era for the nation’s biggest companies, turning dreams of board diversity into a reality. In 2018, California established a new law that requires publicly traded firms in the state to place at least one woman on the board of directors by the end of 2019, and two women on boards comprised of more than six people by the end of 2021.

According to the Los Angeles Times, this new law will open the door for 684 high-achieving women to fill board seats for Russell 3000 companies by 2021. With 377 of the largest 3,000 publicly held companies headquartered in California, this bill could really make a difference and sends a strong message that California is not only promoting gender equity but also taking action to get it done.

The ideal expectation of the law is that having more women in senior leadership positions will translate into having more women in senior levels within the organizations. There is anticipation that this focus on diversity and gender equity also positively impacts corporate profits. A recent report by McKinsey & Company on gender diversity indicated that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. This makes sense, as women make up 51% of the United States population and comprise a powerful consumer base, driving 70-80% of all consumer purchasing.

So what is keeping you from getting your seat at the table?

Throughout my career as a career coach and a recruiter, I have interviewed and worked with hundreds of the most intelligent, skilled, and accomplished women who have been unable to internalize and accept their success. They often suffer in silence, hindered by self-doubt and insecurities. They worry that their colleagues may someday discover they don’t deserve to be where they are in their careers. They often experience paranoia over being exposed as a fraud–this is debilitating and limits their courage to pursue new opportunities. This psychological phenomenon is known as imposter syndrome.

The term imposter syndrome was first coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970s. Although the imposter phenomenon was originally studied in relation to high-achieving women, it is estimated that 70% of people have had imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, this statistic has the “ring of truth” and may even be underreported. I have never met a woman who did not directly relate to symptoms of imposter syndrome even if she did not directly experience it.

Tips to Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome expert and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Valerie Young has identified the following five symptoms in people who experience imposter feelings. We’ve come up with a few suggestions on how to identify and deal with the feelings that come with these symptoms.

The Symptom: Perfectionist

There is a difference between attempting to achieve perfection and striving for excellence. Perfectionists set impossibly high expectations of flawlessness. They may reach 99% of their goals yet still feel like failures. Ultimately, it’s a vicious cycle. When a perfectionist jumps through hoops to achieve a goal, they believe that all of the extra effort, anxiety, and self-torture is necessary to succeed. Striving for excellence is about setting high, yet attainable goals so that you are not setting yourself up for failure.

Recalibrating expectations to be realistic can have a positive impact on how one looks at their progress.

The Cure
Set time limits for a project and stick to it. Recognize when you have achieved your goal and do not need to further invest time and energy into a project. Chances are, you have already exceeded someone else’s standards.


The Symptom: Expert

Experts need to know every piece of information before they start a project.

The Cure
A board of directors is comprised of multiple skill sets and different backgrounds. It’s important to remember that you are not expected to know it all. Focus on your area of expertise and give yourself permission to be the student instead of the teacher. Raise your hand and ask questions to learn from the experts you have surrounded yourself with.

The Symptom: Natural Genius

When the answer doesn’t come easily, the “natural genius” is afraid that research and hard work reveals their inadequacies.

The Cure
Identifying areas where there is legitimate room for improvement could be the key to getting your seat in the boardroom. If you succumb to the idea that you may not be a prodigy, move forward by identifying a skills gap that will open you to new learning opportunities. Volunteer for an extra project just outside your area of expertise, join a committee that takes you outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid of failure–instead, embrace the learning opportunity and take your newfound skills to the boardroom.

The Symptom: Soloist

A soloist has a difficult time asking for help. They feel that if they need to ask for help or guidance, they will be discovered as a fraud.

The Cure
Get a mentor. Tap into your network to find someone who has achieved the level of success you are striving for. Finding a good mentor can be tricky and requires asking for help, which can make a soloist feel very vulnerable, but you never know who will connect you with someone possessing the skill set you are seeking. Put out feelers into entire networks–friends, colleagues, family members, college professors, your alma mater, or an executive coach. When you find the person you have been looking for, it can be very therapeutic to share what you are feeling with a trusted confidant. It will reassure you that your feelings are normal and valid, making the whole process worth the time and effort.

The Symptom: Superheros

Superheros push themselves harder than everyone else in an attempt to overachieve to prove they are not imposters.

The Cure
Make a realistic assessment of your abilities and recognize your accomplishments. So many women, including myself, don’t take credit for their hard work and have a difficult time accepting positive recognition when it is given. Own what you’re good at. Take credit for your accomplishments. When you shift into student/learner mode, it feels less like you’re an imposter and more like you are building on an already strong foundation of knowledge.

By focusing on your super strengths, you will realize that you have more to offer a board of directors than you originally thought.

Final Thoughts

The fear of failure can be paralyzing. It’s important to distinguish the difference between moments of self-doubt and acknowledge imposter thoughts to put them into perspective before it becomes debilitating. Realizing your achievements and celebrating your successes instead of worrying about being discovered as a phony will allow you to set yourself up for success and feel confident along the way.

In just five short months from now, the new board of directors’ law will be in full effect and the best and the brightest women in the Bay Area and beyond will be entering into a predominantly male field. If you are a BOD hopeful, it is critically important to be aware of imposter symptoms and identify ways to overcome them. Remember when you land on the board of directors that it wasn’t luck, it was talent.