You Are Not A Fraud: How Imposter Syndrome Affects Women in Leadership

Posted on Oct. 21, 2020  /  Insights  /  

By Karen Munns, Associate Connections Director at VMLY&R


My colleague is regularly praised by our CEO for her leadership and intellect. She’s a sought-after international speaker, and she consistently delivers award-winning work. Yet, if you ask her, every time she steps onto stage or submits writing for publication, she questions her knowledge, her right to be there. “Why would anyone want to listen to me on this topic?” Even with tangible praise and success, women in leadership can still feel like frauds in our own skin.

We often think:

  • I don’t know enough.
  • I’m not educated enough.
  • I’m just lucky to be here.
  • When will I be enough?


Imposter Syndrome (a.k.a. Imposter Phenomenon or IS) was first researched by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s. IS is a sneaky, little nugget that infiltrates the minds of some of the most successful, highest-achieving, deserving women we know. In fact, an estimated 70 percent of the U.S. population experiences IS, with females having more intense feelings of IS than males. We easily dismiss our successes and achievements as luck, instead of the hard work, perseverance and intellect that it truly is.[i] And if left unchecked and unexplored, that feeling of inadequacy can lead to personal and professional burn out, paralyzation and self-sabotage.

The Damage: What Is Imposter Syndrome Doing To Us?

Imposter Syndrome has roots in various causes from childhood pressure of achievement to gender and diversity issues, and it is important to spend some time with these impostering feelings to get to the root cause. Some of the most common causes are:[ii]

  • Feelings of self-worth, love and approval are based on our achievements.
  • Females and the ethnic-minority are more susceptible to feelings of isolation and inadequacy.
  • A lack of confidence influences our inner narrative.
  • There is past or present internal or external emotional abuse.


Imposter Syndrome can lead to mental health problems, anxiety, a cycle of self-torture, emotional self-sabotage, shame and derailing your career.[iii]

The Defeat: Changing Your Narrative

How do we defeat Imposter Syndrome? Are there ways to heal and adjust the trajectory of our personal and professional lives? Absolutely! However, it takes conscious awareness and purposeful practice. Here are five solutions you can start employing today:

  1. Journal your wins. Keep a brag file. House your writings, speeches, praise emails, etc. in an accessible location and refer to them when you feel IS creep in. It’ll help remind you of why you are you and totally worthy.
  2. Rearchitect your narrative.
  • From “I’m so lucky that I got a promotion” to “I worked really hard this year, and I’m proud of myself for getting this promotion.”
  • From “Everyone here has a higher degree than I do; I don’t belong” to “I am intelligent, prepared and my ideas are valuable.”
  1. Adjust your mindset. Candice Hughes, CEO & Founder, BioPharma Strategy & Innovation Specialist, advises us that we not only have to think positively, we need to act with positive intent. Even when self-doubt sneaks in and tells you that you are a fraud and not good enough. Take action. One step forward. One hour later. You’ve made progress.[iv]
  2. Find a career coach or mentor. No matter how far we travel on the executive path, we all need guidance. Having someone in your corner to guide you, root for you and be direct, kind and honest with you can truly help you uncover and reconcile imposter feelings.
  3. Seek a professional counselor. Let’s remove any stigma attached to mental health. We have a duty to ourselves to protect our mental health, and a professional trained in counseling is often the answer.

Out of Your Comfort Zone & Into Growth

The above solutions are just a handful of ideas to help guide you to living your best, most authentic life. It might be easy to stay in our comfort zone where we think we belong and no one can question our contributions or value. But, by choosing to get out of your comfort zone, to explore your feelings and challenge your thinking, you have chosen growth. And that’s what makes you a high achiever. Are you living to your true potential if you don’t push yourself? Be proud. Congratulate yourself. And put in the work to heal from Imposter Syndrome.  

[i] Swart, T. (2019). Why You Need To Understand the Neuroscience of Imposter Syndrome. Retrieved from

[ii] Clance and Ives. (2011) Retrieved from International Journal of Behavioral Science; Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development (2013)

[iii] Weir, K. (2013) Feel Like a Fraud? Retrieved from; Brene, B. (2012). Daring Greatly, p. 86

[iv] Swart, T. (2019). Why You Need To Understand the Neuroscience of Imposter Syndrome. Retrieved from

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