Feeling like a Fake? Get a Mentor

Meaningful mentoring helps women overcome imposter phenomenon in the workplace.

Image Credit: iStock

Image Credit: iStock

Despite a raft of advances designed to afford women the same opportunities as men over the past century or so, gender imbalances still exist in work, society and the home. Much has been written in academic and popular media about the lack of women in occupations such as those associated with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Attrition from STEM-related education in schools and the proportion of women who have completed degrees in STEM disciplines but fail to take up a STEM occupation are contributing to the perception of a leaky pipeline into these sectors. So too the mid-career exodus of women from occupations such as engineering and science is a worrying trend blamed for the lack of a female presence in senior management and leadership roles in STEM organizations.

Many reasons are cited for the lack of women in traditionally male-dominated occupations including: inherent unconscious bias in recruitment and selection methods, unattractive job roles, a lower proportional representation of girls in math and science in schools, and structural barriers such as the difficulty in returning to technical roles after career breaks.

Any of all of these matters can be seen as a contributor to the broader issue. However, current research by Theresa Simpkin of Anglia Ruskin University investigates the role of the “Imposter Phenomenon” as a barrier to entry and advancement in STEM occupations.

The Impostor Phenomenon was first theorized in the late 1970s by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. It leads to an internal feeling of “not being good enough” and undeserving of success. Individuals may be unable to accept that their achievements are of their own making and instead overstate the place of luck or other external factors as a reason for success. This can cause crushing doubt, stress and a sense of being in a role fraudulently which, at some point, will be found out.

There are many reasons as to why people, and women in particular, have these experiences. However, the lack of recognition of one’s own capacities to achieve and enjoy success is at the heart of this current research as an underlying or contributing factor in the attrition of women from STEM occupations.

Early unpublished results suggest that mentoring support may provide a supportive response to what can be a crippling and motivation-draining sense of self-doubt and stress.

An alternative to the critical inner voice

The ongoing program of research includes one-hour, in-depth interviews with more than 30 women from broad-ranging occupations in STEM including engineering, science, medicine and information technology (IT). The participants are part of a broader global cohort of 432 women who responded to an invitation to take the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale (CIPS) questionnaire. Interviewees self-identified as having experienced a level of Imposter Phenomenon in their work after taking the questionnaire developed by Clance to ascertain whether people had experienced feelings of being an imposter and how often. The women interviewed represented not only diversity in occupation but also in age, length of career tenure and geographical location.

These conversations reveal that women have difficulty in looking objectively on their achievements and successes and overstate the role of luck, their colleagues and other external factors such as support provided by their manager. In a dispassionate and impersonal examination of their work, they could clearly identify their successes as being their own but felt unable to comfortably attribute it to their own efforts. Instead, they brush off good feedback or belittle the import of their work suggesting “Oh, it was nothing” or “Anyone could have done that” despite knowing that their efforts brought about the success and logically, the attribution of success was legitimately theirs.

Having a mentor who could reframe experiences and objectively, and without ulterior motives, provide another voice to express achievements and encourage internalization of the outcomes of efforts may assist women to see their work from a different perspective. Interviewees have suggested that being able to see their efforts in a different light may assist them to be less critical of their work and more accepting of the outcomes.

For some, hearing praise or good feedback is so uncomfortable that they would rather not hear it. “It makes my toes curl with embarrassment just thinking about accepting praise” said one participant and the incapacity to feel at ease with hearing good reports from others on how well they’ve done is widespread. “I’d rather not hear it and when it comes I just brush it off. It makes me very uncomfortable.”

Conversely, discussions about failures or setbacks is much more palatable an option as a topic for a performance conversation.

Failure is Easier to Accept

In conversation women could easily identify failures as their own and felt more comfortable doing so than accepting success as an outcome of their work. Indeed, women suggested that they’d critique their work harshly to counter praise to diminish the sense of unease with good feedback.

Women also reported that while critical conversations and discussions about shortcomings rarely happened as they rarely had them. Instead, they’d manufacture reasons to diminish the appearance of being too good or better than others as they felt more comfortable with critique than praise. Of course, having a mentor who might provide a counterpoint to what was recognized as an illogical habit may be of use to diminish the behavior.

Confidence is not necessarily the problem

There is a particular argument that women often have a lack of confidence that stops them from engaging in new or more challenging activities at work. In this study though, a different perspective was encountered. Women suggested that while they are often completely confident about projects or roles prior to undertaking them, as soon as they agree to take of a new task or are appointed to a new role, they experience self-doubt. Women reported that they experience crippling bouts of sleeplessness and stress after accepting a new or different task or role despite clear evidence that they have had prior experience or successes in similar undertakings. This is consistent with Clance’s concept of the ‘imposter cycle’ (Clance, 1985:51). Again, a mentoring arrangement may assuage the post-appointment doubt by providing support and realistic encouragement that past experiences evidence the probability of future successes. It also may assist women to avoid overwork they put in to ensure that they meet their own high standards of work. These standards, by admission of some women, were almost impossibly high, resulting in long hours, rework and constant checking.

But there’s a catch

Image Credit: iStock

Image Credit: iStock

Mentoring clearly has a role to play in providing a counter argument to the impacts of the Imposter Phenomenon in women in STEM, but there’s a caveat. Broadly speaking, women were adamant that any mentor they had would need to be transparent in their dealings and totally honest.

Several women suggested that they had a mentor but because the mentor lacked a good understanding of the work they were doing, their mentor’s counsel or input was largely ignored and acted as a negative influence. This suggests that robust, positive feedback needs to be based in objective measures and those measures need to be fully understood by the mentor as well as the mentee. It’s not enough for the mentor to say “Good job, Sally! Keep it up!” with a well-meaning sense of cheerfulness. They have to back up such comments with evidence, specific measures and know what they’re talking about.

This highlights another issue in regard to finding mentors. The lack of women in STEM occupations in general and more particularly at senior roles was identified as a barrier to finding female mentors and role models. The broader conversation regarding the pressing need to improve gender diversity in STEM workplaces must include the issue of ongoing support and encouragement to women who may be, like some of the women in the study, the only woman in the workplace.

It is common for women to engage in informal mentoring arrangements with other women inside and outside of their workplaces and some reported having formal mentoring with male colleagues and managers. However, it was suggested that having a senior woman to provide mentoring would be an advantage. While male mentors had provided beneficial career support, women reported it would be more so if they had professional links to more women who could appreciate the workplace challenges frequently faced by women that may not be experienced by men in the same way; sexual harassment, bullying and gender-based career barriers for example.

Many women’s associations and industry bodies (such as the Energy Institute’s POWERful Women and the Women’s Engineering Society in the U.K. and the AIM Network supporting the NSF ADVANCE Program in the U.S.) have or are now looking to initiate or expand mentoring programs. As an example, the AIM Network reports that more than 100 ADVANCE change agents assist in providing support through information dissemination, professional development and mentoring in university faculties. Given that this research found that women often found it difficult to find other women to network with because there were so few women in their workplace, broader initiatives can often fill the void. It would be advisable to seek advice from one of these or similar groups to find a mentor or interest group that might be able to match mentors with mentees and provide other profession and social networking opportunities.

However, as identified in many initiatives including the NSF ADVANCE program for example, a consolidated and cohesive approach has to be taken. This recognises that mentoring forms one part of a broader suite of activities that dovetail together to address the complex and multifaceted issue of gender equity.

Where to go from here?

Image Credit: AdobeStock

Image Credit: AdobeStock

It’s still early to be making any firm and robust claims about what the research is telling us about the big picture of the impact and prevalence of the Imposter Phenomenon. But early indications suggest that it is widespread and in some cases, severe. This can only have a negative impact on the advancement and retention of women in STEM occupations. It is clear, however, that the study can provide a number of recommendations, including enhanced networking opportunities and better performance management practices, to diminish the impact and severity of the issue. Of course, a good mentoring scheme that underpins honest, accurate and objective support is central to addressing a feeling of being a phoney.

Terri Simpkin, Ph.D., is the head of the Leadership and Management Department at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and Chelmsford, England.


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