The Disturbing Truth about Executive Women and Impostor Syndrome

San Juan Rowing Club athletes in plain effort, are about to win a race in the Basque Country, Spain, in 2013.

In 2020, with the pandemic, I made the decision to shift the weight of my professional activity in favor of Executive Coaching. Since then, the number of executives that I’ve had the privilege to coach worldwide, both men and women, has been quite significant. During these three years of intensive coaching, I have learned a number of key things both about coaching and about today’s corporate leaders. But there is one learning that stands out clearer than the rest, and this is the inexorable spread of #impostorsyndrome among executive women around the globe.

The problem with this so-called “syndrome” is that it consists of a wrong self-perception of incompetency, which automatically pushes the individual to compensate for it by working harder on her image of self-assurance and self-confidence, thus generating a permanent state of alert, stress, and diminished authenticity. Of course, is not only executive women who are “pretending”: unfortunately, the corporate world induces managers and leaders to play a professional role often very different from their real “me”. Only, executive women, on top of that pressure, bear the one coming from #impostorsyndrome.

OK, so what? Women need to revindicate their role in society and in the corporate world, as being equal to men, that is what feminism is all about, one could argue. To those who would be tempted to answer that, I would ask them the following: did you ever realize that the world that men have built outside the home is far worse than the world that women have built at home throughout the centuries? The world at home is cozy, caring, collaborative, safe, and healthy. The world outside the home (I don’t mean Nature, but the world of social organizations), is competitive, aggressive, unauthentic, and threatening. Of course, I am generalizing, and there are many examples that would contradict the previous, only you and I know that, on average, that assertion is about right. Isn’t it?

The previous actually means that generally speaking, women are emotionally and socially more competent than men. Again, this is a huge generalization that cannot be applied when we get to the individual, but on average it is so, no need for a statistical study if you lived and socialized long enough, by now you also realized that this is an obvious and overwhelming truth. So let’s face it, accept it, and acknowledge it honestly and fairly.

Now, if you do agree with this thesis, you will also come to the conclusion that the “outside world” has been designed and built by “the wrong people” (men), something that needs to be repaired now. And we are on it, no doubt, that’s the good news. But there is also some bad news: firstly, “the wrong people” are still in command. Secondly, the people capable of changing the system (women), are victims of a global pandemic that hinders them from having the self-confidence to re-balance the power game. Thirdly, and most worrying, the very nature of that “syndrome” is hindering women from talking among themselves about it, even worse, hindering them from talking to men about it.

Men of the world, we must be aware that a great number of executive women willing to make their way to the top are fighting not only against a male-dominated system but also against an educationally acquired inferiority complex. And this needs to stop, now, in all organizations, worldwide.

HR professionals should be seriously thinking about this matter, and addressing it clearly and openly in their organizations, putting up communication and training programs, mostly addressed to executive men and women. I am persuaded that most executive men are honestly willing to support their female colleagues on this one, they just need to be aware of it and they need to know how they can help.

We are in the middle of a global social revolution that is deeply changing the world for the better, not like spurious technology or silly social networks. We are talking here about the forgotten and unused potential of one-half of humankind. Let’s be proactive and not wait for others to solve it, let’s don’t leave women alone to solve it.

Daniel Siles 2023