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Imposter syndrome, the term used to describe accomplished individuals who are unable to accept their own abilities, is often associated with women in the IT industry.
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Deena Gornick, executive and board-level coach at Penna, has found after years of studying the syndrome that it often comes hand-in-hand with achievement.
When starting her career as an executive coach, Gornick was surprised by the seniority of people who were suffering from imposter syndrome, and said people in high-level positions would often tell her: “I’m afraid I’m going to get busted, I’m afraid I’m going to get caught.”
Gornick said: “I had two reactions to that. The first was complete and utter relief because I felt that way too, and the other things was that it just astounded me that someone who was that accomplished, that educated, that responsible and that successful, who earned so many more zeros than I did, could have that feeling.”
Although imposter syndrome is commonly associated with women, men also suffer from the phenomenon. Gornick used the expression ‘locus of control’ to describe how the two genders perceive career development, and therefore imposter syndrome, differently.
The locus of control is the part of human psychology that perceives how we as individuals can influence our own lives and destiny, she said.
Women often have a more external view of their locus of control and “wait to be asked” for changes in life, whereas men have a more internal view of their locus of control and will try to do as much as they can to influence where they end up, she added.
“These are both painful,” she said, “especially when you suffer from imposter syndrome. These are fantastic generalisations, and like many generalisations, there are amazing exceptions.
“But imposter syndrome is a very normal thing. It’s a phenomenon of the way we control our lives, of the way we control our destiny. And this is a way of encapsulating the difference between how the two genders react to imposter syndrome.”
Women in the tech industry
At the event, Gornick told Computer Weekly that it is common for women in the technology industry to suffer from imposter syndrome because the industry is still very male-dominated.
“Technology is such a male-dominated culture that there’s still that old idea of women entering the industry being immigrants, pioneers still forging through territory that is still a man’s domain,” she said.
“It takes an enormous amount of conquering and an enormous amount of bravery to overcome that level of imposter syndrome.”
Gornick said that as women are still trying to establish themselves in the tech industry, it is important for them to have a clear idea of their values and to present themselves authentically in order to progress.
“One of the first steps to being a leader in tech, male or female but particularly as a women, is to get a really clear idea of what your brand is,” she said. “Who are you and what are your values? What is your purpose? What is driving you to become a leader?
“In tech, as a woman you are still a pioneer as a leader. Really get clear about who you are. Your values are so important, and they will help you conquer imposter syndrome if you suffer from it.”
Overcoming imposter syndrome
During the event, a panel of IT leaders explained how they had overcome imposter syndrome in the past to help audience members to address the phenomenon themselves.
Vanessa Vallely, managing director and CEO of WeAreTheCity, who has spoken on imposter syndrome before, said she often suffers from the phenomenon when she feels people are better educated than she is, and exercises mindful breathing to overcome it.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to breathe it out – take a deep breath and just walk in the room,” said Vallely.
“I have realised as I have got older than failure is all part of the game.”
Rosemary Cooper Clark, international executive coach and management consultant, told the audience she would often wake at 3am thinking: “They haven’t found me out yet.”
She added: “What worked for me was talking to trusted colleagues, and also talking to your best friend, and by that I mean make yourself your best friend. Sometimes when we talk to ourselves, we would never talk to our best friend like that.”
A theme running throughout the event was that men also suffer from imposter syndrome, and panellist Ian Cooper, head of architecture at Huddle, said he had felt it most often when moving to a new post, with his mindset moving from “I deserve this next job – why haven’t I been promoted before now?” to “This is a terrible mistake”.
Cooper advised people to remain level-headed and check in with their personal networks and mentors to stay focused.
“You need a support system of people who know you professionally,” he said.
“They are people who will know you well enough to tell you that you’re fine. You need those people in your corner to silence those voices that undermine you.”
The work environment can be important to enabling confidence in the workforce, said Stuart Cochran, CTO of Huddle. Empowering employees with flexibility and the right technology can level the playing field for both men and women, he added.
“It’s about stopping people feeling that they don’t have the right to a role, to feel they are an imposter. Then maybe they will feel they can contribute at the same level as others,” said Cochran.
“It is certainly true when you look at gender, but it’s also true when you look at people going through different life stages.”