Growing up in an all-girls school, female empowerment was embraced. I remember feeling surprised when national statistics showed fewer girls take Maths than English, and for a very long time felt I hadn’t really been impacted by sexism. That was until I entered the world of finance, where for the next two years I felt I just wasn’t smart enough to be there. Luckily, over time, I had a revelation – actually very few of these people knew more or worked harder than me, they were just better at backing themselves.
Like the majority of the women in this world I suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’, and as much as I hate to admit it, probably always will (fingers crossed for a piece in 10 years about how to overcome it). The issue is that in banking having a ‘back yourself’ attitude goes a hell of a long way to becoming successful, it’s an environment where cockiness isn’t a problem, in fact quite the opposite. This attitude makes sense within the stock market, if people think you’re right, you tend to be. I’m pretty sure Warren Buffet will continue to be successful purely because people copy any investment he makes.
As a junior the obvious answer would be to just be bolder, to speak with certainty even if unsure of the answer, and in this respect to take on more of a male persona. Unfortunately, this contradicts another piece of advice I’ve been given; build your personal brand and make sure it’s true to who you really are. As much as I would like to be the bold brash sales girl, who always backs herself I just know I’m not, and by that notion could never play the part convincingly. More importantly, I don’t ever want to be. There is a stark difference between knowing you’re right and pretending you’re right, personally the element of uncertainty in my beliefs leads me to further research, development and justification of my opinions – and ultimately a better final result.
Sticking to my true self is all well and good, but how do I then overcome the jarring difference between who I am, and who I feel I need to be to succeed. For the past 18 months I’ve been battling with this question, and whilst I’ll probably never find the full answer, here are some tried, tested (and effective!) methods for managing ‘imposter syndrome’, and being a woman in a man’s world.
1) The right kind of caveat
How many times have you given someone a present and before they’ve opened it felt the need to explain the gift and offer them a receipt so they can exchange it? Similarly, if someone asks for advice you accompany anything you say with the phrase ‘I don’t know though’. This can be fine in certain situations, but in the finance world (and pretty much all other male dominated environments) uncertainty is the enemy, so any hesitation or caveat and you might as well walk out the door.
This brings me back to the issue of ‘imposter syndrome’ and an inability to state an opinion without being certain, but is where the four words ‘Instinctively I would say…’ become your greatest ally. It’s a caveat but the right kind. Not only does it allow you time to think, and present any counter arguments you think of mid speech with a ‘however’ and then concluding comment, it also sounds strong without closing off the opportunity to say later on ‘After further research…’ or ‘I can do further research and present this in more detail’.
2) The Perfect Accessory
The traditional image of armour conjures up notions of knights in metal suits, however digging a little deeper into the definition you get “The protective layer or shell of some plants or animals”, further still “A person’s emotional, social or other defences”. Conceptually armour is a defence mechanism, and we can view our clothing as that mechanism.
Take the TV series ‘Suits’, the continuing theme of which is men – yes using their intelligence to solve problems – but also closing people, persuading and often bluffing their way to success. Harvey Spectre, one of the main characters, reeks of male bravado, and it’s no coincidence that the shows tile and introductory shots both relate to what can be seen as a modern man’s armour: the Suit. I know a number of men who wear ties still every day, not because it’s necessary but because it puts them in the right mindset.
This idea of using armour to present strength but also to help you feel a certain way can be picked up by women too. My personal armour is a pair of heels, not worn to make my bum look smaller or legs longer, but a power tool. Not only do I gain an extra 4″, putting me at eyeline when speaking to colleagues, but I hold myself higher and feel an inner sense of purpose. When my heels are on so is my game face.
Whilst heels may not be to everyone’s taste (let’s be honest they’re hardly comfy), finding something you put on daily could just give you the power you need to push through the day, and tackle the difficult conversations with confidence. Whether it’s a bold print, a slick ponytail or Anna Wintour’s method of a morning blow-dry, find your armour and wear it with pride.
3) Be Aware
They say the first step to overcoming an addiction is admitting you have a problem.
Although relating under confidence to addiction might seem like a tenuous link, admitting you can’t speak with confidence as easily as your male counterparts can help you fight the problem. Preparation and work can help fill those confidence gaps. Bring extra notes to the meeting ‘just in case’ and re-rehearse that presentation. As Mindy Kahling said, “I don’t see how you could have self-confidence if you don’t do the work”, so whilst you might have been hoping for a work around, I can almost guarantee putting in the extra hours will leave you way ahead of where just bluffing it would get you. Also, the inner knowledge that actually these people aren’t in fact, any better than you might just give you that bit of inner confidence you need.
4) Find The Right Team
With all the will in the world, a tropical flower just won’t grow in a British garden. Similarly, if a team demands bolshy masculine behaviour, sometimes you just won’t fit. Yes, my inner feminist hates this one, and writing this all I can think of is Sheryl Sandberg’s famous words “sit at the table”, how can we expect to evoke change in the workplace if we avoid the areas that need it most? However, sometimes you just have to admit when you won’t win. Instead, take a step back, think about what you really want, and find a team that gives you the space to learn before you speak and will help nurture and grow your confidence. In the long term you might find yourself sat at a slightly bigger table, with the confidence and ability to fight the battles you previously sidestepped.
No the tables aren’t equal right now yet, and until we get to a society where children are raised with the same codes of behaviour, irrespective of gender, they won’t be; but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Whilst imposter syndrome, and many of the other issues facing women in male dominated workplaces may preside, there is also some great benefits that come from having a stereotypically ‘female’ value set. By overcoming the negatives these positives can flourish and hey, maybe little by little articles like this will cease to be needed.
“Women remain perhaps the world’s most under-utilised resource” – The Economist 2006