5 mins

After years of leaning in, imposter syndrome is still prevalent amongst women in tech. Can it be eradicated?

Anyone can suffer from feeling like you aren’t qualified to be somewhere – also known as ‘imposter syndrome’ – but in the chronically gender-imbalanced technology industry, it typically rears its head for women. Now, a debate is raging: Is imposter syndrome simply an attitude that women need to unlearn by ‘leaning in’ to leadership roles, or the inevitable byproduct of gender bias in the workplace?

What is imposter syndrome and can it be tamed?

In recent years, the entire concept of imposter syndrome – originally coined as imposter phenomenon in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes – has come under increasing scrutiny.

Although imposter syndrome implies a notable lack of confidence, critics of the term say that there is nothing unusual about feeling unsure of one’s performance in a high-pressure professional environment. Furthermore, it is becoming better understood as the natural effect of systemic imbalances in power and leadership.

That’s thanks in part to a growing body of research showing that women in male-dominated professions report much higher rates of professional self-doubt than those in more gender-balanced environments. In a recent KPMG survey, 85% of female executives said they believe imposter syndrome is commonplace among women in corporate America.

As a notoriously male-dominated arena, it’s not difficult to see how the tech industry fits into this conversation. According to a new Women in Tech report based on World Bank data, women make up less than a third of the world’s technology-related workforce. Progress has been particularly grim in leadership, where the proportion of women tech leaders is lower now than it was 40 years ago

With this backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that women in tech are inclined to lack professional confidence. Nearly 100% of 250 women named imposter syndrome as a major barrier to entering tech in a 2023 survey by Tech Returners.

“The causes and contributing factors for imposter syndrome are as layered as the systems that perpetuate them,” says Dr. Kristin Austin, Pennsylvania-based Vice President of I.D.E.As. (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Access) at Rewriting the Code, a nonprofit that connects women in tech to industry mentors. “Preconceived notions about who gets to hold power, make mistakes, drive innovation, and even take risks, are all connected to early messaging and role models,” she explains. 

Janice Omadeke, the founder and CEO of The Mentor Method – an Austin, Texas enterprise software firm that helps companies design and scale corporate mentorship initiatives – agrees that precedent is powerful for shaping subconscious notions about who ‘should’ be in a position of power or authority. While she points out that imposter syndrome “does not discriminate by age, experience level, industry, or race,” the phenomenon is “often more pronounced in marginalized and underrepresented communities, particularly in sectors like technology, where corporate biases are more visible.”

This may be especially true for individuals who are breaking new ground in an industry or organization – for example, becoming the first woman appointed to the C-suite of a male-dominated tech company.

The dangers of imposter syndrome

Geneviève Retzlaff, the Vancouver, Canada-based founder of the leadership coaching firm Grow Better Together, notes that women in male-dominated professions may also subconsciously modify their workplace behavior and decision-making processes in an effort to prevent their actions from being read along gendered lines. This unique dynamic, which Retzlaff terms “stereotype threat,” is one of the reasons why her company has developed a suite of professional development services aimed specifically at women leaders

Regardless of who experiences imposter syndrome, or the exact reasons why, the phenomenon can be hugely detrimental to both individual workers and the teams they serve. Retzlaff points out that people with imposter syndrome may be more inclined to turn down challenging tasks or opportunities for growth, which limits their professional and personal development. On the flip side, imposter syndrome “can also increase the risk of burnout, as individuals may strive for unrealistic standards, leading to overwork,” Retzlaff says. 

Finally, individuals with imposter syndrome may hesitate to delegate tasks or ask for support when needed. “The fear of judgment or criticism may prevent individuals from expressing their opinions or ideas freely,” Retzlaff explains. “This can hinder team cohesion, effectiveness, and open communication. Ultimately, imposter syndrome can stifle innovation within an organization due to the fear of rejection or failure.”

How organizations can fight back

Although the precise dynamics involved in imposter syndrome continue to be subject to research (and heated debate), it is apparent that the prevalence of imposter syndrome likely won’t dissipate on its own. Instead, the fight requires deliberate steps on the part of company leadership. 

At the organizational level, leadership must be deliberate about creating egalitarian environments. “Consistently and intentionally invite women to the table – not just the decision-making table, but also the discussion and discovery tables,” Austin says. “Craft experiences that incentivize women to take risks, innovate, and contribute meaningfully in the workplace. And when they do, acknowledge this achievement broadly."

While a culture of inclusion begins with companies demonstrating the value of women’s ideas and achievements, Omadeke points out that equal compensation and professional development resources are also vital for rebalancing power hierarchies in male-dominated industries. "Establishing equal pay is a critical step in supporting and empowering female employees, particularly in environments where women are often underpaid or overlooked for promotions,” Omadeke says. “Enhancing opportunities for upskilling, training, and development boosts confidence in your talent pool, equipping them for their current positions and future advancement within the organization.” 

Organizations that explicitly recognize the potential occurrence of imposter syndrome and address the problem head-on are better poised to resolve it, Retzlaff says. She echoes Omadeke’s emphasis on the value of professional development opportunities for improving workers’ skills and confidence, and points out that these types of initiatives can also be used to target imposter syndrome. She advises that companies “offer support like coaching or create a mentorship program, being mindful to pair women with other women who have gone through similar challenges.” 

Ultimately, the onus of a more egalitarian tech industry falls on individual companies making the effort to build more egalitarian teams. That means cultivating a culture of diverse, confident leadership. 

“Building strong leaders requires collective effort, and as an employer, you should strive to be an integral part of each employee’s support system, recognizing that they are vital to your success," Omadeke says. Through this approach, no one has to feel like an imposter.