How imposter syndrome makes the tech gender gap even worse

Women are still outnumbered by men in the tech industry, and imposter syndrome may be a major contributing factor.

Why imposter syndrome persists in the workplace, and how to deal with it The majority of employees feel inadequate or unconfident in their capabilities at some point, but an inclusive workplace can help mediate those problems.

The gender gap in tech is far from a new problem—and it exists in more ways than just pay. As of March 2019, women were still significantly outnumbered by men at major tech companies, according to a recent Statista post titled, "The Tech World is Still a Man's World." 

Women only make up 20% of tech jobs at Microsoft, 29% at Apple,  and 21% at Google, Statista's research showed. Women fare similarly when it comes to the likelihood of upward mobility within the company, and are 21% less likely to be promoted than a male coworker at the same level.  

SEE: Tips for building and advancing your leadership career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

While companies say they are making strides to improve diversity and inclusion, the majority of women (67%) still feel underestimated or not taken seriously at work, according to a Paychex report.

Being chronically outnumbered and underestimated can fuel feelings of imposter syndrome, said Mary Cavanaugh, vice president and senior consultant at Keystone Associates. Imposter syndrome "is thinking you're going to be found out, that you're not an expert, that you are not where you should be, and that it's just a matter of time before people uncover what you really are, and you're asked to leave your job," Cavanaugh said. 

"While [imposter syndrome] may be more prevalent amongst women, it's important to note that this exists amongst both men and women ," said Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of recruiting firm Lasalle Network. 

Signs of imposter syndrome

Spotting signs of imposter syndrome isn't difficult, if people are willing and aware enough to look for them. 

"A common sign of someone experiencing imposter syndrome may be that they constantly deflect praise, not taking credit for any accomplishments," said Gimbel. "They may be quiet, for fear of saying the wrong thing that would 'expose' them as not being qualified for the role. They also are less willing to trying new things and taking risks because they're paralyzed by the fear of failing."

Warning signs can also appear via body language, said Cavanaugh, with individuals keeping to themselves and lacking confidence. 

Imposter syndrome and the tech gender gap

Imposter syndrome can easily create a vicious cycle in the minds of women in tech. Feeling outnumbered is intimidating enough, but feeling underestimated and overlooked increases those insecurities, causing women to succumb to their imposter syndrome and hold back, Cavanaugh said. 

"We need more women in [the tech] industry," Cavanaugh said. "They may feel a little intimidated and take a backseat because they're afraid of being called out for not being as good as their male counterparts. I absolutely think that imposter syndrome could be holding some women back from even entering [the industry] in the first place."

A lot of these issues are deep-seated and systemic, Cavanaugh added. "We're conditioned as women when we're young to be polite," she said. "There's just some of those things that you 'act like a lady.' It's how we're brought up. It's just the socialization of us as women."

Call to action

As history has shown, these issues won't be solved overnight. However, true change starts at the top, Gimbel said. 

"It starts at the top by having vulnerable leaders who admit their shortcomings and mistakes," Gimbel noted. "When you create an environment where it's okay to not have all the right answers, a place that encourages the concept of trial and error, and a workplace where those at the top share the mistakes they've made (and continue to make), it will help those feeling like an imposter realize that no one is perfect."

Communication, as with most initiatives, is key, said Cavanaugh. Business managers and leaders must first recognize and acknowledge that these problems exist, and create a safe space where everyone can have open conversations and a seat at the table, she said. This responsibility to communicate not only falls on higher-ups, but also on those experiencing the imposter syndrome, Cavanaugh noted. 

"Let that be a goal: That you do raise your hand, you do participate in the meeting. If it's incorrect, it's incorrect. The sky doesn't fall. The world doesn't end," she said. "It's about learning from our mistakes and taking the chance and taking the risk. We're so risk-averse at times, but it's so important for us to really give it a go."

For more, check out Overcoming imposter syndrome: How managers can boost employee confidence on TechRepublic. 

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Image: iStockphoto/gorodenkoff