Flex Your Leadership Muscles

Six diverse women flex their arm muscles
Lena Giakoumopoulos Photo
GWLN Program Director
World Council of Credit Unions

5 minutes

GWLN’s approach to overcoming impostor syndrome

Raise your hand if you’ve experienced impostor syndrome. If your hand is raised, you are in great company: Sheryl Sandberg, Maisie Williams, Tina Fey and Michelle Obama have all admitted having feelings of impostor syndrome—and there are probably many more who have not admitted it publicly.

This may not be news to many. So, what exactly is going on? Are we impostors, really, or is this a feeling fostered by the system? Is it about racial and gender bias? Do our work environments influence and maybe even create these feelings?

The “Impostor Phenomenon” was first described in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They studied 150 high-achieving women in the U.S., all of whom had been formally recognized for their professional successes by colleagues and had achieved high academic accomplishments through degrees earned and standardized test scores. The researchers found that despite all the evidence of external validation of their personal success, the participants struggled to acknowledge their successes internally.

Even someone like Maureen Zappala, a former propulsion engineer (a literal rocket scientist!), has suffered from imposter syndrome. She worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for 13 years in the 1980s and ’90s. Now a professional speaker and author of Pushing Your Envelope: How Smart People Defeat Self-Doubt and Live with Bold Enthusiasm, Zappala said that for years she thought NASA only hired her because they needed women, and she often felt under-qualified and that she had to work more to prove herself.

In an article for the BBC, Zappala said, “I was too afraid to ask for help because I thought if I'm really as smart as they think I am, I shouldn't need the help, and I should be able to figure this out on my own.”

Research shows that more than 80% of people face feelings of impostor syndrome across all industries and in all levels of employment. Yet, this phenomenon is not clinically diagnosed. What are we doing about it?

Many of the proposed solutions and strategies for addressing impostor feelings nowadays focus on trying to “fix” the individual. Some solutions involve coaching and confidence training, clinical training and entreaties to lean in to “overcome” one’s own impostor syndrome. But these solutions may not serve everyone and may even fall short.

Through the Lens of Global Women’s Leadership Network

Impostor syndrome has been observed to be in great part shaped by patriarchal societal and cultural influences, as well as rigid gender stereotypes that dictate what “feminine” should look and act like. So perhaps we should be looking at the narrative that addresses how we approach the impostor syndrome through the lens of the social and cultural norms.

In conversations with GWLN members around the globe on leadership topics, it is these social and cultural influences that surface when the confidence gap or impostor syndrome are discussed.  

According to the GWLN Pink Paper We for She, GWLN members tell us that social and cultural norms hold women back from advocating for leadership positions. The “confidence to advocate for themselves” was cited as the largest barrier women face to advance to leadership roles in the credit union space.

In some African nations, women aspiring to leadership in financial cooperatives face challenges that may not exist in other nations. For example, tribal authorities undermine women in leadership and some spouses don’t support their wives being in leadership roles.

Meanwhile in Asia, one leader said that for many women in that part of the world, impostor syndrome is not discussed. There are large populations of people in poverty, and the pandemic tremendously affected their families and homes. The focus for many of these women is to finally be able to go out of the house, work and therefore contribute to the family. But this is far from addressing the impostor phenomenon.

“Women need the courage to step up. There are so many competent, capable women in our industry, but the travesty is we don’t see them taking on those senior leadership roles in our industry,” said a credit union executive from the United States and GWLN member who was interviewed for the GWLN Pink Paper.

We also need to remember that, although we see more women talking about impostor syndrome or actually admitting it, men experience these feelings too. However, most men don’t admit it, don’t talk about it and do a much better job of covering it up.

Perhaps not surprising, the confidence gap between male and female leaders closes with age, according to a study by leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman.

Your Professional Wellness: Flex Your Leadership Muscles

Just like you need to work consistently for your physical and emotional wellness, the same goes for your professional wellness. As standard practice and part of your professional wellness routine, you can begin by flexing your leadership muscles.

Here are some of GWLN’s recommendations:

Be louder about your accomplishments and efforts when the time comes to ask for the raise, promotion, etc. It’s important to not second-guess yourself or be afraid to ask for what you think you deserve. Inventory your major accomplishments so when the annual performance review time comes, you’re prepared.

Create a personal strategic plan to enable yourself to identify your leadership goals and map out the specific activities and support needed to get there.

Seek a mentor whom you trust to have open conversations and to guide you as you grow in your professional journey. Seeking more than one mentor can help you build your own personal advisory board comprised of individuals within and outside of your industry.  

Actively and intentionally be part of the solution to rewrite social and cultural scripts that define power and privilege. Encourage other women in your organization to do the same.

Leverage GWLN and other networks to expand your professional circle of potential sponsors. The individuals who will advocate for you when you are not in the room are a critical to your success. It’s very important to know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

To learn more about how to join and get engaged with GWLN, visit the page here.

Lena Giakoumopoulos is director for Global Women's Leadership Network, an initiative of the Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions.

To learn more about how to join and get engaged with the Global Women’s Leadership Network, visit the page here. To join the effort to Bridge the Gender Gap, you can donate here.

The Worldwide Foundation is the fundraising and engagement arm of the World Council. Join us on a global journey to transform a billion lives worldwide using credit unions. Visit to start your journey today.

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