The system has (we have) failed women’s mental health

We’d just completed a session about mental health in the workplace when my colleague reached out and asked if I was interested in writing our upcoming blog post, the topic: women and imposter syndrome. He had been researching extensively and the deeper he got the more he realized that he wasn’t the right person for this job, why? Well, he is just that, a he.

In the few seconds that the question hung in the air, awaiting my response, some thoughts raced through my mind: First, it’s a tight deadline and I’m super slow at writing. Second, surely one of the other women on the team could do it better, they’re better feminists. Third, this is important, we need to do it justice, I’m not an expert on this topic. Fourth, I’ve never experienced imposter syndrome shouldn’t this be written by someone who has?! Fifth, I don’t want my team to think I’m not motivated or up for a challenge. 

“Ok yes, I’ll do it, provided the team takes time to read over it and promises to be honest if it’s rubbish, then someone else can write it”

The irony of my thought process was lost on me. I was not fast enough, feminist enough, expert enough, even an imposter enough to write this blog.

When my words appear in black and white for all to read, THAT will be the moment that I get found out and then my team-mates will have to rewrite it.

And then it hit me: FUCK…. I have Imposter Syndrome!

The Imposter Phenomenon

At Fuckup Nights we’re no strangers to Imposter Syndrome, it’s a central aspect in many of the failure stories our speakers share and we’ve written about ways of Dealing with Imposter Syndrome. We’re definitely not alone, a Google search of the term brings up a staggering 6 million results. So, what is going on?

The issue was first coined “Imposter Phenomenon” (which we prefer, as this is not an illness) in 1978 as an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness (fraud) by clinical psychologists Clance and Imes.

It means that you feel like every achievement is a false positive, a result of good luck or coincidence, and it creates a constant fear of being discovered, of being outed as a fraud.

The Clance and Imes study focused on women who were high achievers but lacked the internal acknowledgment of their accomplishments, and they stated that the phenomenon, although not gender exclusive, is more prevalent in women.

In 2020, a KPMG study concluded that 75% of female executives across all industries have experienced Imposter Phenomenon in their careers. That’s 3 in 4 successful women, carrying around a nagging feeling that at any moment the curtain will be pulled back and they will be exposed as undeserving of their positions.

Why do such a huge majority of women feel like this in their working lives?

Firstly, we’d like to turn this conversation on its head, put our hands up and admit that we’ve had to adjust our own mindsets about this topic.

Sharing tips and tricks for dealing with Imposter Phenomenon is fine, but it treats the symptom and not the cause. Telling women (or anyone for that matter) how to handle their feelings of Imposter Phenomenon might empower each individual to make a personal change, but it also puts the blame and the accountability that follows firmly in the hands of the victims and that’s pretty Fucked up!

This phenomenon is not a self-inflicted mental disorder (as its name might lead some to believe), It is “an experience that occurs in an individual”, but why? Well, it’s due to our environments: our family, social, educational and workplace systems are often perfect breeding grounds for Imposter Phenomenon and so, instead of focusing only on “rehabilitating” the victims, let’s go straight to the cause and Fuckup The System!

Representation matters

Imposter Phenomenon can begin to develop during innocent childhood moments like when a daughter asks her mother for help with her maths homework and is told “That’s a Daddy question” or when a teenage girl opts to take an Information Technology class, looks around the classroom and finds there are only two other girls in it. This is a pattern that continues, right up to the boardroom where in the US women hold just 26.1% of directorships.

Being underrepresented in our working environments can increase feelings of self-doubt. For women of color, this issue is even more prevalent. In her article Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome, Ruchika Tulshyan explains it is  “because the intersection of our race and gender often places us in a precarious position at work. Many of us across the world are implicitly, if not explicitly, told we don’t belong in white- and male-dominated workplaces”.

Not only do women often face self-doubt in the workplace, the feeling is often coupled with a pressure that in their “lucky” position they must represent not only themselves but the whole gender, race, class, sexual orientation etc that they belong to. This hugely intensifies the fear of failure.

So, how can we fix this broken system and stop Imposter Phenomenon before it gets into our heads?

Our systems and institutions need to change so that women don’t feel like they “deserve a seat at the table”, but rather, they know that they belong there.

Fucking up the system

We can look to countries like Iceland, which is leading the way to women’s equality in the workplace with 38% of parliament being female and nearly half of board seats held by women (thanks to a mandatory quota of 40%). The country has a fair pay policy in which employers have to prove that they are paying their staff members the same salary for the same job. This beautiful (and logical) law takes the responsibility for receiving fair pay away from the individual (women and those experiencing Imposter Phenomenon often don’t negotiate their pay) and gives it to the employer.

So much needs to be done to bring equality and support positive mental health in our workplaces. PWC’s Women in Work 2021 Report looks into the Impact of COVID-19 on women in work and estimates that the pandemic has set progress back to 2017. To recover from this blow by 2030, progress towards gender equality needs to be twice its historical rate. Let’s all put on our running shoes and go Fuckup The System! 

How? Well, we can start by developing confidence and a growth mindset within our own families. The next time one of my nieces asks for help with her homework, rather than saying “I’m terrible at maths, go and ask your dad” I’m going to say “Let’s work it out together”.

We can all be conscious about the way in which we encourage and compliment women and girls. We love these 50 compliments that have nothing to do with appearance (you can also use them on boys 😉 )

And as for my newly self-diagnosed “Imposter Syndrome”, I’m going to work on that, right after I find out if this blog needs to be rewritten by someone else because I think I’ve done a pretty good job! 

Jade Webber

Jade Webber

Community and Operations Coordinator at Fuckup Nights

Based in Palma de Mallorca, Jade was raised above a pub in South East London, she feels most at home when surrounded by lots of different people. She loves traveling and hates sat-navs (they kill the fun of getting lost).
You can follow her dog on Instagram or keep it professional by saying “Hello” on LinkedIn! 

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