Women are graduating at a faster rate than men, and with better grades, and yet, Vreneli, Stadelmaier, MSc, author of Sure She Can: Crush This Insecurity, tells us that women are not progressing in their careers as they should be. The reason, and the topic of her book, is what is now known as the imposter syndrome.

Stadelmaier begins by introducing us to two women doubt themselves who despite obvious success. “The imposter syndrome is a type of insecurity that makes you feel enormously insecure while rationally knowing at the same time that you can perform the task that you have to do,” Stadelmaier writes.

While other descriptions of the imposter syndrome abound, Stadelmaier likens it to a feeling of cheating, where a person feels like a fraud and considers themselves incompetent, even though ample proof of the accomplishments can be found. For many women, the syndrome can insert itself into many areas of their lives, causing them to avoid asking for what they really want from employers, employees, business associates, and even loved ones.

Often, Stadelmaier tells us, women can find themselves in the “imposter syndrome spiral,” where successes are not internalized and only lead to them working even harder to justify their success or avoiding taking up any new challenges. Stadelmaier gives the example of Maud, a prominent attorney at an upscale law firm, who has amassed a history of cases won, yet continues to panic before each one with the thought that she was just lucky.

Maud, and many other women will simply work harder, propelled by a voice inside their heads that tells them they are not good enough, and even more concerning, will be found out. Here, Stadelemaier offers a helpful test for readers to identify the imposter syndrome, with statements such as, “I often feel guilty or lazy when I am not doing anything “useful.”

As much as seventy-five percent of women recognize imposter syndromes within themselves, and the causes, Stedelmaier tells us, are threefold: upbringing; cultural expectations; and nature or nurture. Women can be raised in households where they are measured by their performance alone, constantly compared to an over-achieving sibling, criticized on a regular basis, or feel like an outsider.

Yet women are also subject to multiple cultural expectations that influence how they feel about themselves. “As soon as an increasing number of women enter a certain discipline (feminization), the status of that profession decreases and the salaries go down. We have seen this happen in teaching and medicine (mainly with GPs), and we see it happen now in the legal and judicial professions,” Stadelmaier writes. Known as Sullerot’s Law, the phenomenon can be attributed to many factors, such as the qualities a society attributes to men vs. women. Males are often linked to rationality, leadership and intelligence traits, where women are often associated with caring, nurturance, and emotionality. Here again, Stadelmaier offers a helpful questionnaire for readers to test their cultural expectations.

Women, however, are quite different from men, and there are many genetic components that support the imposter syndrome. Not only do women have higher levels of estrogen that lead to enhanced empathy, but they also seem to read emotions sooner, and with more clarity. And being sensitive to the emotions of others, Stadelmaier tells us, does not build self-confidence. What does, and what women can do to begin to counteract the imposter syndrome, are two things: consistent practice and playing sports.

However, women must first learn to recognize just when the imposter syndrome can appear. “The imposter syndrome is not something that bothers you 24/7. There can be periods in your life when it is playing up, to disappear into the background for a while during other periods. It very much depends on the measure in which you suffer from the imposter syndrome and how much that is reinforced, by negative experiences, for instance,” she writes.

Negative experiences such as a bad grade as a student, being criticized at work, being self-employed, or working in a highly masculine organization can leave lasting marks that cause many women to lose ambition, experience damaging levels of stress, and cause unhappiness. For many women, success in their career become a double bind — to be successful they often have to adopt traits that make them appear bitchy, bossy, and cold.

The imposter syndrome, as damaging as it can be, Stadelmaier assures, can be overcome. Here, the author lays out seven helpful steps: Listen to your parrots (critical inner voices), collect hard evidence, avoid working too hard, claim success, get into shape, call in reinforcements, practice in daily life. She also offers several helpful tools and exercises, to help make parrots visible, replace errors of reasoning with reasonable thoughts, affirm successes with feedback, and illuminate competencies.

The fear of being found out, for many women, can be paralyzing not only to their careers, but their personal lives as well. Yet, in practical and concise language, Stadelmaier makes the strong case that for women, imposter syndrome need not co-exist with success. Instead, women can learn to claim what is their birthright: the joy that comes with success.

Sure She Can: Crush This Insecurity
SheMedia, May 2016
E-book, 198 pages
$16.66

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