How women today counteract that nagging self-doubt
Writer: Jackie Zimmermann
Editor: Ryan Goldberg
Illustrations: Morgan Evans
It was just a Friday night after-work event. Someone was getting promoted, or retiring, or leaving the long hours and stress of corporate accounting for a new job. Regardless, when Kara Martin decided to leave the party, one of the supervisors she reported to on a regular basis asked her to share a cab. It didn’t take long for his hand to end up between her legs.
She removed it; it came back. When they arrived at her apartment, he was ready to get out and follow her upstairs.
After snidely asking if he was going to detail the experience in her performance review, she told him to fuck off and got out of the cab.
“I think I’ve always been a little bit scrappy like that,” she said. “But moments like that I fear for women [who] aren’t as brassy.”
Sexual harassment is just one of a myriad of workplace anxieties that women struggle with on a daily basis. We earn less, are overlooked for promotions and, despite the personal sacrifices and studying it took to get to our current positions, often feel like our place in the workforce has little to do with accomplishments and everything to do with luck. It’s called Impostor Syndrome, and while men are not immune, women are much more susceptible to the condition.
“Boys are socialized to be more confident than they really are,” said Dr. Valerie Young, an Impostor Syndrome expert and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. While men are used to posturing and putting up a front, “when women fake it, they feel like they’re faking it.”
Brandy Morris, now a brilliance instigator for entrepreneurs looking to develop their brands, spent the early days of her career trying to quiet her fear that the multiple promotions she received at the hotel where she worked were a fluke.
“I kept thinking, ‘They’re going to figure it out,’” she said of her anxieties. “In hindsight, it’s not like I got the job by lying on my resume.”
She was qualified, but without a degree in tourism or years of experience, she felt like the promotions were lucky. It wasn’t until she started internalizing the compliments she received on a regularly basis that she understood her worth to the company.
“[Management] doesn’t just wander around saying nice things and giving people salaries,” she said. “I realized I couldn’t go much further until I started believing in myself as well.”
Reframing your fears and feelings of inadequacy is one of the ways Young suggests overcoming Impostor Syndrome. “People who don’t feel like an impostor are not smarter or more talented or more capable,” she said. “They just look at a situation and see it differently.”
While men are more likely to blame external factors when things go wrong, women are more likely to internalize and personalize their failures. According to Young, reframing what it means to be competent is important, especially since many women struggle with perfectionism. A widely cited internal report from Hewlett Packard sums up the sentiment perfectly: when faced with ten job requirements, men will apply to a position if they only meet six, whereas women won’t apply unless they meet all ten.
“Men feel like they can learn on the job, and that they are hired based on capabilities and can grow into it,” Young said. Women, however, feel like they need to know it all upfront.
The thing is, women often sell themselves short.
“When [skills] come as easy to you as breathing, it’s easy to assume it’s common sense rather than a talent,” Morris said. “A lot of times we’ll downgrade our talents because we assume it’s easy for everyone.”
Additionally, women work in a culture that advises them not to be arrogant, Morris continued. “If I stand up and say, ‘I’m a badass at what I do,’ is that arrogance, or the truth?” she said. “It takes practice [to acknowledge it.] I still have to practice every day.”
Moving past feelings of incompetence is a huge step towards equality in the workplace, including the fight for equal pay.
There is an underlying fear that you might not be good enough, that you might not be worth what you want to ask for, said Jamie Lee, a director of business operations at a mobile gaming startup. Lee also coaches women on the art of negotiating. “I think that at the heart captures the essence of the Impostor Syndrome, which is maybe I’m not good enough.”
Three years ago, Lee started organizing negotiation workshops and events to teach women why they should, and how they can, negotiate their salaries. “We think that if we keep our head down and do good work, the powers that be will take care of us,” she said. “But that’s not true. You have to ask to get what you want.”
Despite comments like those from Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, who insinuated that women shouldn’t ask for raises, a woman’s insistence on negotiating her pay can help close the gender pay gap.
“For the most part men are more likely to say, ‘Yeah, I definitely deserve what I want,’” Lee said. “But for us women, it takes a little bit more coaxing and a little more rationalizing for us to convince ourselves that we deserve it.”
Despite her position, Lee isn’t immune to workplace anxieties. Before her workshops, she often has to dismiss fears that she is not qualified to give advice.
“I’m just like everyone else,” she said. “I struggle with the same issues; I feel nervous, I feel anxious before negotiations. I find myself wanting to put it off.”
But Lee feels strongly that professional women should receive encouragement and mentoring on the subject. She encourages women to practice, because like anything else, negotiating is a skill that gets better over time.
But only if you need it to. Young, who has been studying and speaking about Impostor Syndrome for over 30 years, has noticed a change in the way women perceive success.
“For a long time, women trying to go up the corporate ladder tried to emulate men,” she said. “Women now have a more layered definition of what it means to be successful.”
The pursuit of a healthy work-life balance is a driving force for women, and it is one that involves a lot of personal reflection.
“When a woman hesitates in the face of success, a lot of times it can feel like self-doubt,” Young said. “But sometimes what’s really going on, is instead of feeling like ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ part of the question is, ‘Do I really want to do this?’”
The answer for Martin was a resounding no. She was done dealing with her frisky boss, misogynistic stories about weekend conquests, and turning down invitations from her male co-workers to go to a strip club, even if it meant she wasn’t being a “team player.”
“The typical, let’s be honest, bullshit, that you can imagine about working in finance in New York happens,” she said. “It’s definitely a masculine environment.”
But sexual harassment is not specific to finance. It’s pervasive in multiple sectors, ranging from the restaurant industry, where 75 percent of women say they experience sexual harassment from their co-workers on a monthly basis, to female scientists, of which 64 percent identified being harassed. According to Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding the opportunities for women in business, of the 7,256 reported incidents of sexual harassment in 2013, 82 percent were from women.
And those are just the reported incidents.
Sometimes women brush it off or never acknowledge it happened, using the excuse that everyone was drunk, said Martin. “They are kind of like, no big deal, no harm, no foul.”
After leaving the industry and focusing on her health, which suffered significantly at the hands of her demanding schedule, Martin is now a health and lifestyle coach advising women on how to be healthy both physically and emotionally.
The transition from CPA to lifestyle coach felt like a stretch, and the pressure of feeling like an impostor started to build when people began paying her for her services. But when she realized she was using a lot of the same skills as she did in her previous job, she began to feel at ease.
“You can study to be a therapist, to be a coach,” she said, “but you don’t really learn until you do it.”