Women and BIPOC executives often find themselves dealing with imposter syndrome at work, but maybe there is a way to silence those internal doubts

Executive Women Experience Imposter Syndrome at Work

According to a 2020 study released by KPMG, 75% of executive women experience imposter syndrome at work despite their accomplishments. Interestingly, this study focused only on high-achieving female executives, and even these women in leadership feel that they aren’t as competent or as intelligent as others might think. They are concerned that others will “discover the truth about them”…and then what?

As a Management Consultant to the retail industry specializing in System Re-engineering for 30 years and as a Certified Leadership Coach for 15 years, I have studied extensively the effects of Imposter Syndrome on women leaders, including myself. I am familiar with my clients’ experiences and the many methods that they have used to deal with Imposter Syndrome. While my clients reported great improvements in their ability to cope with Imposter Syndrome using traditional methods, I also commonly saw accomplished female executives slip back into old habits and doubt themselves. My goal became to discover how best to help these successful women professionals to permanently silence the voice of the imposter so that instead of falling into the traps of self-sabotage and over-production, they could climb their career ladders with confidence and voice their ideas with assurance even if they were the only woman at a table of men.

Before we dive into tools for eliminating imposter syndrome, however, let’s first define imposter syndrome, examine how it affects both individuals and industries, and explain why dealing with imposter syndrome requires more than just learning new coping skills.

What is Imposter Syndrome at Work?

If you were to look up imposter syndrome on the internet, what you might find is a definition that says that it is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved through one’s own efforts or skills.

In working with my coaching clients, I find that there are pervasive themes associated with imposter syndrome: “I’m not being good enough,” “I don’t feel like I belong,” and “I don’t feel heard.” Clients frequently describe it as having a voice in their head with messages such as, “I can’t figure it out. What’s wrong with me? I’ve invested so much. Am I good at it? Should I do something else?”

woman executive at her desk or place of work appearing worried, anxious, exhausted

Imposter syndrome is especially prominent among people who are underrepresented in a larger group, such as BIPOC individuals working in predominately white environments. Women leaders in technology, who I have often coached, tell me that they are still often the only woman at the leadership table, and that this situation frequently manifests in feelings of imposter syndrome.

Clients also tell me that the voice of the imposter isn’t always present. It tends to show up when a person is doing something that could make a critical impact or if they are being challenged and feel judged.

How Imposter Syndrome Affects Women in Leadership Roles

In a 2005 interview with Christine Lagarde, who at the time was head of the International Monetary Fund, she confided that she had conversations with Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, in which these two very powerful women discovered that they had the same work habit.

“When we work on a particular matter, we will work the file inside, outside, and sideways, backwards, historically, genetically, and geographically. We want to be completely on top of everything, we want to understand it all, and we don’t want to be fooled by somebody else.”

In addition, they both admitted to staying up all night preparing for meetings when they would be predominately attended by men. They over prepared even though they were aware that none of the men were going to the same lengths to prepare.

Similar to Lagarde and Merkel, most accomplished women who experience imposter syndrome never actually have to ask themselves “…and then what”, because they simply do whatever is required to always appear competent even if they still feel that others “may discover the truth” about them. They have learned ways to cope with the doubt, shame, and fears caused by imposter syndrome.

the quote they simply do whatever is required to always appear competent

Women struggling with imposter syndrome at work often:

  • Overwork
  • Undervalue or downplay contributions
  • Set unrealistic expectations
  • Procrastinate
  • Hesitate to share an idea
  • Look for total consensus before acting
  • Self-sabotage in order to avoid “being found out”

For example, Marti, one of my coaching clients, was the lead for a top producing sales team of mostly men. Her ability to mentor her team was unquestioned. However, when it came to promoting some of her ideas for expanding the marketplace, she was hesitant to share them with her boss before getting a consensus from her team. Invariably, her hesitation led to one of the team members picking up on her idea, usually a man, and taking credit for it with her boss.

Another client, Sara, is a technical genius who owns her own business. Similar to Lagarde and Merkel, she thought that in order to compete she had to know every detail of her expertise backward and forward. She was concerned that if her clients found out that she didn’t know some detail, she would lose her credibility, and then her clients would leave. Asking questions or relying on the expertise of others felt out of the question. That imposter phenomenon led to her procrastinating on making decisions and taking action to the point that her business was floundering.

How Imposter Syndrome Impacts Industries

People generally think of imposter syndrome as an individual person’s concern and not as a problem for industries. However, imposter syndrome can contribute to increased anxiety and career burnout, and decreased risk-taking, symptoms that can lead to one of the biggest problems that industries as a whole are facing: employee retention.

Some industries are more impacted than others. Studies show that those who are different from most of their peers, such as women in high-tech careers, are more likely to experience imposter syndrome. Research from SHRM, a leading human resource organization, indicates that while women make up 57 percent of the overall workforce, only 27 percent of women join the predominantly male-oriented technology industry. Possibly a more important statistic is that 50 percent of women working in technology are likely to quit before the age of 35, and 56 percent are likely to quit by mid-career. This is true even during an era in the technology industry when statistics show that 81 percent of organizations are experiencing a shortage of skilled technology workers.

boardroom with primarily men and one woman in a meeting

Established and New Methods to Overcome Impacts of Imposter Syndrome

Turning the tide of female employee attrition

To stem employee turnover, it is still critical for industries to address the issue of retention of women: from a standpoint of equitable pay; from a cultural standpoint including gender bias training for all employees; from an organizational shift that provides unbiased ways to screen resumes in order to increase the number of women entering the industry; and from a professional development standpoint to create more visible paths for women to be promoted into leadership roles.

In addition, and possibly an even faster track to retain women currently in leadership, the phenomenon of imposter syndrome must be acknowledged and dealt with by female executives and their colleagues who want to see change.

Traditional solutions to dealing individually with imposter syndrome

As noted throughout my examples of real coaching clients experiencing imposter syndrome as well as my own personal experience as a woman leader in tech, most of us have learned to cope with this concern by working harder both mentally and physically: research shows that individuals dealing with imposter feelings may in fact work 2-3 times harder. It’s no surprise that this constant, anxious over-production leads to burnout.

Instead of overworking, others may question their abilities and allow their doubts to keep them from reaching for jobs and promotions for which they are more than qualified. So how do we change this?

Some methods that both men and women successfully use to cope with the impacts of imposter syndrome include:

Creating a journal of fact-based knowledge and achievements can be used to both bolster a sense of self-worth and track accomplishments to remember when asking for a job, promotion, or raise. When I first started coaching, my own coach had me journal every day to answer the question: “How do I know that I can be successful at what I want to achieve?”

Supportive Networking:
One of the most difficult positions for anyone to be in is feeling like they don’t have a strong network that they can rely on or who understand their fears and challenges. Meeting in groups to talk through concerns, failures, and successes helps leaders work together to find ways to promote each other. Choosing to speak up for each other when someone is shut down empowers them to continue to voice opinions and ideas.

Practicing Self-Compassion:
Practicing self-compassion, letting go of perfectionism, laughing at errors, and accepting ourselves helps overcome the imposter voices in our heads. One of the books I highly recommend on the topic of accepting one’s self is “The Courage to Be Disliked.”

Prioritizing Self-Care:
Including self-care in your work schedule can help to lower anxiety and maintain energy. Exercising, eating healthily, resting, and spending time with family and friends have all been shown to have immense positive impacts.

Woman Practicing Self Care Yoga

However, despite the great benefits demonstrated from staying focused on these methods, a conundrum brought me to seek another answer in my coaching work.
As a Coach, I would see students become more confident in their ability to stand up in front of a room to give a presentation. I watched with excitement as their voices grew stronger, they dressed with confidence for their desired roles, their physical stances demonstrated more assurance in their abilities, and they became more willing to both voice their opinions and listen to the opinions of others. The imposter phenomenon faded before my eyes. But did it?

Six months down the road when I visited these same students, only a handful of them had maintained what they had learned. Was it the fault of the program? Not at all. Then what happened? Life happened. The kids got sick, they were late on a project, someone became angry with them, they went into survival mode, and then everything they had learned went out the window.

In working to support my clients, I spent 15 years studying different methods including Energy Leadership, High Power Presentations, and Relationship Savvy, and all of these methods added important skill sets needed by executives and others in leadership roles. However, I didn’t solve my conundrum until was introduced to a method based on neuroscience called Regenerating Images in Memory (R.I.M.), and I realized that I had found a method that actually silenced the imposter’s voice in our heads.

A new neuroscience approach to overcoming imposter syndrome

R.I.M. was originated by Dr. Deborah Sandella. As I studied with Dr. Sandella and learned to facilitate her method, I became more and more encouraged that not only can the R.I.M. method help people discover the thoughts and actions that are triggering imposter syndrome, but this approach can also permanently release negative emotions like self doubt. In turn, leaders are able to shift how they respond to situations, no longer experiencing imposter symptoms, such as feeling hesitant to speak up, refusing to ask for help for fear of being found inferior, or obsessing over projects and over-preparing for everything.

Regenerating Images in Memory (R.I.M) Has Potential to More Permenantly Deal With Imposter Syndrome

Scientists tell us that we are absorbing somewhere between 40 million and 40 billion bits of information every second. However, our conscious brain can only process about 40 thousand bits of information per second. That means that there is a huge gap between what we are aware of doing consciously and what our brain is using to support our life behind the scenes. The key to overcoming the imposter phenomenon is understanding and applying how the brain supports that differential.

Something that relates to brain function and development

How unique brain function patterns offer the foundation for a new tool to silence internal imposter voices

From infancy until the ages of 7 or 8, science tells us that the brain is open and in theta brainwave state. Theta is similar to a hypnotic state. And, in this state, the brain takes in information and stores that information in the subconscious as images or patterns of thought.

For example, if your parents pointed out what a chair is and repeated the new concept over and over again, then soon you were able to distinguish what a chair is. Later, you learned how to sit in that chair. Now when you walk into a room and want to rest, you don’t consciously think “what do I do?” No, you know what to do without even thinking about it.

This is true for 99.999 percent of everything we do from walking, talking and eating, to avoiding danger. Scientists used to think that it was the brain that was always telling our body what to do. However, in the last 50 years, scientists, starting with the work of Dr. Candace Pert, have made some interesting discoveries as to how our brain functions.

What scientists now recognize is that much of the work that our brain does to protect us starts as a response to what our body is telling the brain. Our entire body, not just our eyes, ears, and nose, acts like a big antenna, constantly scanning the environment and telling our brain how to respond in order to protect us. This is known as Interoception.

The purpose of interoception is to keep us safe. However, safety doesn’t necessarily mean that we are in imminent danger of being run over by a mac truck. Rather, safety in this context means that the brain attempts to return to the safety of “normal” based on the patterns that our brain created primarily during the early childhood years before the age of 7 or 8. Research has shown that the brain strives to create safety even if what our subconscious thinks is “safe” no longer serves us as an adult.

Try this exercise.
First, interlace your fingers. Is your right thumb or your left thumb on top? Notice that it feels comfortable. Now try to switch how you interlace your fingers putting the opposite thumb on top. How does that feel? Most people will say that the switched position feels weird or uncomfortable. It is important to note here that it is your skin and muscles telling your brain what is comfortable, not your brain telling your hands.

For the exercise above, we could talk for years about how it is perfectly safe to interlace your fingers either way. Even understanding the concept logically, your body would still react in the same way – seeking its natural state of “safety”. Or, you could use behavior modification to change the reaction in your hands. For instance, you could interlace your fingers over and over, putting one thumb and then the other on top. If you continued this new routine, your body and brain would eventually learn that it was “safe” to interlace your thumbs either way.

However, as I observed as a Dale Carnegie Coach, unless we consistently work on changing our behavior, our body and brain will return to their original patterns.What Dr. Sandella discovered is that we don’t need to talk about imposter syndrome, and we don’t need to force behavior changes. Rather, equipped with an understanding of interoception, it is possible to shift our subconscious and body, so that we naturally shift our reactions and are able to overcome imposter syndrome.

Multiple women making a business presentation

Finding new confidence when R.I.M. releases imposter syndrome

Sandella’s method begins by focusing on what we sense is happening in and around our body. As we locate those sensations, using our imagination, we can connect those sensations to the image or pattern in our subconscious that is being triggered by the body. When we discover the source image, we can reimagine our response or perspective based on our understanding of the situation as an adult. That shift in our subconscious brain pattern simultaneously changes the antenna in our body, and our body stops responding to the environment in the same way.

We shift from subconsciously seeking the “safety” of childhood when imposter voices may have played a starring role to creating new patterns of safety that center on confidence and serve us as adult leaders.

A client sent a video to me, and her account moved me to tears:

“It’s like all the fear has been taken out of everything. The ‘what does my boss think, and does he like me, or does he hate me? Am I doing it right or am I doing it wrong?’ It just stopped. It’s kind of like I remembered who I am.

Marti, the women referenced earlier who led a top producing sales team, was able the very next day after R.I.M. to call her boss with a new idea before she gained complete consensus from her team or even shared the idea with them. Her boss contacted her later in the day to let her know that he approved and was ready to fund her idea. When I asked her what was on the horizon for her career following this monumental step, she told me that there was a man who had been promoted to another sales team with her identical job description at the same time that she had. This male colleague, however, had been given the title of Vice President, while she had been given the title of Senior Director. When asked how she planned to rectify the inequitable promotions after silencing the imposter voices in her head, she said with previously uncharacteristic assurance, “I’m going to ask for the VP title.” Two weeks later she let me know that she is now a VP of Sales for her division.

Sara, my client who owned the floundering tech company, let go of her fear that someone would “find out” that she didn’t know what she was doing, causing her to lose clients. It allowed her to start reaching out for help and forming professional relationships with other experts in her field. It also gave her the courage to speak up when an authority figure would try to tell her how she should proceed. Her simple and direct answer became, “I don’t work that way, and this is the reason.” Of course, she had already known that her process would yield better results for her client, but until her R.I.M. experience, she had been afraid to speak her truth to authority. In a conversation several months later, she let me know that she is on target to double her business this year.

What would it look like for you and your career if you were to deal with imposter syndrome once and for all?

During conversations with women leaders in technology, I hear over and over that their biggest challenge is letting go of imposter syndrome in whatever way it shows up for them, whether that is not speaking up to authority, working themselves around the clock because they fear that they won’t have the right answer, or avoiding taking the next big leap in their career.

If we can begin to face this challenge and course correct, perhaps the estimate that it will take 132 years for women to catch up with men in their careers can be shortened. And, perhaps more women will be inclined to stay in industries like technology and grow their numbers, so that both companies and women can win.

It all starts with strong minds free from doubts.

If you’re trying to encourage the women in your organization to reach their higher potential, then you may be seeking a manager leadership training. Learn More

Dr. Pat Baxter



Churchill Coach

Jane is an iPEC certified Executive Coach (ICF/ACC), and an Energy Leadership Index Master Practitioner (ELI-MP). She is a Professional Speaker, and Author of the book, “WISEWOMAN LEADERSHIP”. Jane has an A.A. in Theatre Arts from Stephens College and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Denver. In addition, she is certified as an instructor/coach for: Dale Carnegie Leadership and Communications; High Power Presentations; Relationship Savvy, and Perfect Customers. Jane also has more than 30 years of experience as a Management Consultant and Program Manager within the national retail industry.


  • Advancing the Future of Women in Business: A KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report, KPMG LLP, the U.S. audit, tax, and advisory firm, 2020
  • The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, 2005
  • The Courage to Be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Kaga, 2013
  • Goodbye Hurt and Pain: 7 Simple Steps for Health, Love and Success, Dr. Deborah Sandella, 2016
  • Molecules of Emotion: The Science between Mind-Body Medicine, Dr. Candace Pert, Scribner, 1999:
  • The Significance of Interoception: Looking at the bottom-up versus top-down communications in the body, Psychology Today, Reviewed by Davia Sills, May 16, 2022
  • Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Imposter Syndrome: a Systemic Review, National Library of Medicine, J Gen Intern Med., April 2020
  • Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest Health Sciences, January 2016

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