Impostor Syndrome in Women: Feeling Like a Fraud Even After Earning a Seat at the Table


I read an article recently by a woman I really respect about how she referred other candidates to a recruiter for her dream job because she didn’t think she was qualified. 

My first thought was, “Wow, she feels this way too?” Finding out that other awesome women share these feelings of self-doubt makes the experience so much less lonely. 

“Impostor syndrome” is something I have given a lot of thought, especially as I transitioned from not having children to having three kids along with my full-time job as a partner at BVOH Search + Consulting. I often feel like I have my toe half dipped in motherhood and half dipped in being a full-time leader and professional at my firm – and I sometimes feel like I’m not doing either very well.

 While I have a very supportive network around me, my problem is with the little voice in my head that asks, “Have you really earned this seat at the table?”

What is Impostor Syndrome?

The term “impostor phenomenon” (now more commonly “impostor syndrome”) was first coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They used it to describe high-achieving women who felt that they were intellectual frauds, that they had achieved success through some kind of luck or accident. These women often lived in fear of being “discovered” as phonies.

“I often feel like I have my toe half dipped in motherhood and half dipped in being a full-time leader and professional at my firm – and I sometimes feel like I’m not doing either very well.”

Entrepreneurs are often more susceptible because they have a greater degree of personal accountability for their decisions than many employees. Entrepreneurs also tend to deal with a lot of unique, unscripted situations, and are often stepping outside their comfort zones. In these instances, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “Am I really the best person to figure this out?” 

The confluence of impostor syndrome in women and among entrepreneurs contributes to a smaller percentage of female entrepreneurs and business owners.

How Impostor Syndrome Shows Up for Me

Along with the entrepreneurial issues mentioned above, in my job as a recruiter, I deal with a lot of people, and dealing with people can throw you a lot of curveballs. People bring their personalities and baggage to their jobs, and these can create unusual situations. 

When someone shows up with an unexpected problem, I’ll think to myself, “I’ve never dealt with this before. I’m probably not the best person to ask about this.” I try to remind myself that I have a lot of experience. I might not have dealt with this situation, but probably not many people have. I can come up with a plan as well as anyone else.

 Managing the younger people at our company and trying to lead by example can also trigger my impostor syndrome. I empathize with them and put myself in their situation when they have problems, but at the same time, I have to remind myself that I am at a different place in my career. I have years of experience, and I know what I’m doing.

 When I am struck with self-doubt, I feel like I have a bird on one shoulder saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” and a bird on the other shoulder saying, “You have 16 years of experience!” I try to have enough self-awareness to recognize when that is happening, and then I try to reason with myself. 

Coping Strategies for Imposter Syndrome

Be OK in your own mind.

One of the best strategies I’ve found for dealing with imposter syndrome is to find a way to be OK in my own mind. I hold myself to a higher standard than anyone else does. It isn’t unusual for people to tell me I’m crushing it while I feel like I’m dropping balls all over the place. 

I try to remember that I may feel like I’m slipping up, but I’m probably not—or at least not as bad as I think. I might not feel great about how I’m doing, either at home or at work, but I’m getting things done, and sometimes I have to be OK with that. Allow yourself to be held to other people’s standards, not just your own.

Stay in the moment.

Another thing I focus on is being in the moment. Whether I’m at work or at home, I try to concentrate on what is at hand rather than thinking about all the other things I feel I should be doing, mulling over things I haven’t done, or dwelling on areas where (I think) I’m failing. 

“One of the best strategies I’ve found for dealing with imposter syndrome is to find a way to be OK in my own mind.”

So often, women feel like we’re not doing enough. Sometimes my daughter comments that I don’t participate in as many school functions as some of her friends’ moms which can be tough to hear. I have to remind myself that I believe I am setting a good example for her by working, and I hope I am inspiring her for her future career, if she chooses to go that route.

Practice self care.

Regarding mindfulness, I also practice yoga, and I really enjoy it, particularly because it helps me deal with stress and helps me feel grounded. Not everyone has to do yoga, but I recommend trying to find some kind of self-care practice that helps you deal with your stress and feel more centered.

Rely on your support system.

I feel very lucky to have a great support system. Talking to other women in similar situations is extremely helpful. I have several friends I like to get together with, and we talk about these issues over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Seek support from like-minded people.

Stop apologizing.

Over the years, I have heard a lot about women apologizing too much in the workplace. I think this is a symptom of impostor syndrome in women. I know it can be a difficult habit to break, and I do it myself sometimes. However, we need to cut down on the apologies, especially when we have done nothing wrong.

Claim Your Seat at the Table

Just the other day I was talking to a female friend who is a CMO at a publicly traded company. I told her she needs to try to get a board position. She questioned, “Am I ready for that?” And I told her, “Of course you’re ready for that!” 

One great thing about my role as a recruiter is that I’m able to meet with so many leaders, both male and female, who really care about bringing diversity to their organizations.

We need more women in leadership. I feel less affected by impostor syndrome when the person I’m dealing with across the table is another woman. And we need to continue to have conversations about these issues out loud. 

It’s time for all of us to quiet that little voice in our heads and to recognize our worth.