Moving Through Imposter Syndrome: How Women in Biotech Can Reframe Their Mindset
It has been reported that 75 percent of high-achieving women compared to just 24 percent of men feel imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. This level of imposter syndrome, for women in particular, is found across all industries and the biotech industry is certainly not spared. I was reflecting on how I become President & CEO of Halloran Consulting Group, and it’s largely attributed to the gaps I saw in my former role in clinical operations and the way I leaned into my talents to meet those industry needs. I recognized that because I never went to business school, I needed a team around me who had strengths that I didn’t have, to build an organization dedicated to bringing early-stage life science companies the expertise they need to develop their products efficiently and effectively. That recognition was a strength, not a weakness. A turning point came from the sage advice I received from trusted peers and mentors enabling me to ‘stick with it’ through challenging moments.
To pay it forward, I recently partnered with The Conference Forum on a ‘Women Leadership in Biotech’ series, moderating a panel on ‘Addressing Imposter Syndrome in Biotech Leadership and How to Mitigate It.’ The panel brought together life science female executives, all courageously sharing their personal journeys and mitigation strategies so that we all can lean into our successes and talents together. When this happens, individuals and organizations both benefit. The takeaways from these female executives are applicable universally.
The panel featured a guest speaker, Dr. Valerie Young, co-founder of Imposter Syndrome Institute. Widely considered the foremost expert on imposter syndrome, she’s spoken to over half a million people around the world and authored The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Take a moment to peruse her website – there’s a lot of helpful information to review and apply.
Imposter Syndrome – What Is It and Where Does It Come From?
Dr. Valerie Young puts it this way, ‘millions of capable people around the world – men and women – secretly worry they’re not as bright, talented, or qualified as everyone thinks they are,’ and that’s called imposter syndrome. The term was coined in 1978 and despite references to imposter syndrome appearing as early as 1981 and its popular use today, it is not a psychological condition or diagnosis of any kind. It’s more of a mindset and a belief about one’s competence.
Behind this syndrome is the shared unrealistic, unsustainable belief about what it takes to be competent. All achievers want to do their best, but when they feel like an imposter, ‘best’ includes a host of rigid self-expectations that go far beyond just doing well and more into self-defeating beliefs. One’s view of their own competence is a major contributor to perpetuating their belief that they are an imposter. For example, if everyone at an organization sees a particular colleague as highly capable, but that employee sees themselves as an inadequate fraud, that’s indicative of a competency playbook that bears little resemblance to reality.
Dr. Valerie Young has identified the five types of imposter syndrome.
- The Perfectionist
- Sounds like: “I should deliver an unblemished performance 100 percent of the time. Every aspect of my work must be exemplary. Nothing short of perfect is acceptable.”
- The Expert
- Sounds like: “If I were really competent, I would know everything there is to know, and I would understand and remember everything I read. Before I put myself out there, I need an in-depth education, training, and experience.”
- The Natural Genius
- Sounds like: “If I were really smart, I would be able to understand everything the first time I hear it.”
- The Soloist
- Sounds like: “If I were really competent, I could do everything myself. If I ask for help, it will come across as if I have no idea what I’m doing.”
- The Superhuman
- Sounds like: “If I were really competent, I would be able to do it all and do it all extraordinarily well.”
How someone arrives at one (or more) of these imposter types is certainly situational and unique from person to person, and unique experiences throughout someone’s life, if left unexamined, may result in imposter syndrome. For example, if a child in a nuclear family is praised only for winning and being ‘good,’ and punished when actions resemble anything ‘bad,’ that child may grow up to be a perfectionist with harsh self-expectations in order to get the praise and comfort they seek in order to avoid uncomfortable criticism and shame from others. As they evolve into the workforce, they believe every aspect of their work must be exemplary and nothing short of perfect is acceptable. At some point, they internalized a belief that ‘good’ equals perfect, and that mindset manifested in their workplace to avoid criticism and the shame that comes with a lack of perfection.
This mindset can also prevent deserving people from taking on new challenges for fear of failing and not being ‘good enough’ for the role. One of the panelists also shared the syndrome showed up for her when she didn’t accept more challenging roles as her career progressed because she felt she couldn’t master that role. This panelist eventually observed others taking on the same role with a lesser skillset than what she mastered, and that disconnect propelled her to work through her mindset and lean into the roles that she was absolutely capable of filling. It just required a lot of reprogramming.
These are just a few examples and do not reflect all who experience the perfectionist type. There are endless examples that may contribute to imposter syndrome, such as gender or cultural expectations beginning in the childhood or adult home, socioeconomic factors, and previous poor experiences with employers, and much more, which is why it’s crucial for those that have imposter syndrome to reflect on their unique context that contributes to their current mindset so they can fully lean into their talent, have fun along the way, and begin to release self-expectations that no longer serve them and their organization.
Moving From Imposter Syndrome to Confidence – What Does it Take?
It’s important for people to understand and identify imposter syndrome triggers before they happen, so they can use specific tools to get through the situation. For example, does it happen right before you share a differing perspective with a colleague in a meeting, or does it kick in before a presentation, or do you find yourself anxious during your presentation while taking in the looks of your colleagues?
The panelists shared advice to get through these difficult head space moments:
- Coach yourself through moments of doubt by recognizing your own accomplishments that allowed you to get to this point and cheer yourself on in the moment
- Ground yourself in the belief that you deserve to be where you are, and feedback and criticism is there to provide you with new positive insights
- Take time to learn your history of rigid self-expectations, make peace with the expectations that are getting in the way of happiness and success in the workplace, and learn to become a realist
- Learn how to ‘work a room’ – bring objecting points of view to light, but channel energy from those that are positive
- Accept that you don’t need to know everything, so you can take more pressure off yourself and lean into what you know
I’ve also shared with my own colleagues to “surround yourself with people that know the things you don’t, so you don’t have to be the expert, and then get out of their way and support their work.” I find this to be helpful for myself but also that mindset empowers my colleagues. We’re all ignorant, but only on different subjects. I write that playfully, but the aim here is to be comfortable not knowing everything and trust what you do know.
While each employee must do their own internal work to navigate their own imposter syndrome, there’s also a responsibility on behalf of the employer to provide a psychologically safe environment for their employees. It’s important for employers to give their employees permission to share what they don’t know and rely on their team members. Taking this a step further, one of the panelists shared that her team doesn’t allow themselves to compare, but instead, they arrive at discussions ready to listen and learn. Her team’s motto is ‘say what you don’t know, don’t compare yourself, and know that you’re a key team player.” What a motto!
Leaning in and Supporting Each Other – It Makes a Difference
It’s rare – unless you’re a panelist on this series – to admit to another colleague (or boss) that you have imposter syndrome. It’s awkward to admit, so don’t expect your colleagues will openly share that vulnerability with you. That insight only comes with taking time to get to know your colleagues, listening to how they view their experiences (failures and successes), and understanding their concerns. It’s important to know if your colleagues have this mindset because, as a team, you can uplift each other and deliver even better work.
Don’t underappreciate the value of networking and mentoring. Opportunities to develop a network and get mentored don’t have to be through a formal process, in fact, mentorship comes in many casual ways like observing and modeling a great colleague that made a positive impact on you or creating a peer network of particular individuals that have a common professional goal. These examples create a space where open and honest dialogue can happen, and if comfortable, create that space to dive into those challenging conversations. You may be surprised how much you share resonates with others and will eventually have a positive impact on your mindset. If you feel like you’re impacted by imposter syndrome, you’re definitely not alone. It will take some work to work through these sticky thought patterns, but with time and practice, they will lessen.
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