Imposter syndrome and ‘frozen’ careers: how the pandemic is hitting adland’s women

The changes to work culture caused by Covid has knocked women’s confidence for six.

Many women and men have experienced imposter syndrome at some time in their lives – that niggling feeling that you’re going to be found out, revealed to be the fraud you believe you are. Hey, even Neil Armstrong experienced it in his latter years, and he was the first man to walk on the moon!

But while it’s true that both men and women can suffer from the sense that they’re not really as smart or capable as people think they are, imposter syndrome more often than not has a female face. A study in early 2020 conducted for trading company IG found that 87 per cent of leading female chief executives and businesswomen have experienced it (with 70% also stating they feel like they are not taken seriously in the workplace.)

And then came the pandemic. Watching colleagues being made redundant or furloughed is never easy, particularly when nothing else around you is normal. “Why them and not me?” many of us ask, leading to a sort of career version of survivor guilt, compounding any existing traces of imposter syndrome.

Women, I’m sure, have been hit harder amidst all this. Why? Because typically, we rely on our work colleagues and the collaborative nature of an office environment far more than men do to bolster ourselves against imposter syndrome. WFH has taken that reassuring physical space away. Not only that, but time and time again, women say that one of the biggest weapons in our battle against imposter syndrome – a physical network of peers and mentors, other women to whom we can relate – disappeared overnight a year ago.

Yes, we still meet over Zoom, but it’s just not quite the same. We sit figuratively and literally in our own little boxes, our workdays now hyper structured and with all chances of those once confidence-boosting water-cooler chats with colleagues on hold.

The truth is that without clever tricks and tools to minimise its impact, the anxiety and self-doubt that comes with imposter syndrome can and do prevent some women from reaching their full career potential. Not least because you’re unlikely to seek out a new role if you secretly worry that you’ll never measure up. Add to that the Covid-effect – scarred by the whole WFH/childcare/homeschooling experience, far fewer women than men are seeking out new roles – and it’s clear why a headhunter friend of mine is deeply worried about her ability to provide companies with gender-balanced shortlists right now. 

While our male counterparts are tapping into their longstanding professional networks and putting themselves out there, many women I see are sort of frozen in time, just grateful to be able to put one foot in front of the other each day and keep all their existing plates spinning.

I do believe that one of the positives to emerge from the pandemic is a deeper awareness of many of the issues that impact working women in our industry. The personal is political, and the process of change only ever starts when a group of people see the challenges they face for what they are. 

We now need to ensure that policymakers, industry bodies and other decision-makers in our business also embrace the necessary changes and follow up with allyship and actions. 

So the return of the Creative Equals/Business school, the subsidiary of Ali Hanan’s original diversity championing organisation, could not come at a better time and applications for the late Spring course are now open. Designed to provide support, mentorship and leadership training for women beyond creative teams, it will be held in a hybrid virtual/physical fashion – and there may even be some plate-spinning classes. 

Helen James is the managing director of Crispin Porter Bogusky London