Mission Imposter: Myths Female Executives Tell Themselves
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Today is International Women’s Day. Indeed, a great time to reflect on the incredible impact of women in the world and in the workforce. In my long career, I’ve worked with many extremely talented women. But, I’m continually amazed that the number of female executives on leadership teams, in executive roles at companies, and on boards hasn’t made a more significant increase.

As a behavioural researcher, I wanted to know if women executives really come up short in the competencies that make great leaders, or if it is more an issue of perception versus reality that could be holding them back.

One such category of perception is internal. The “Imposter Syndrome” was coined by Georgia State academics in 1978 to describe high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. While both men and women can suffer from discomfort that they don’t have the skills or experience for the role they are in, in general men do a better job to “fake it ‘til you make it.”

The Leadership Competency Research

I conducted behavioural assessments and examined the data between 97 female CEO’s and Vice Presidents* against 89 male CEO counterparts. I used the behavioral dimensions that I know, and have consistently shown to be key success factors for high performance executive level leadership: problem solving style, work habits, motivation, self-awareness, human relations, coping strategies, lifestyle priorities and vocational incentives.

The results from my investigative research comparing female executives with male CEOs: the two groups had very few statistically significant gaps across the majority of key leadership performance traits.

  1. Behaviours where female executives are nominally ahead of their male CEO counterparts
    • More innovative – have a strong propensity to recognize and deliver creative imaginative solutions
    • Place more importance on an active family life
    • Have a slightly higher work ethic
    • Slightly more motivated to seek personal financial wealth
  1. Behaviours where female executives lag slightly behind their male CEO counterparts
    • Less dependent on support and avoid seeking support
    • Less intuitive — when operating with few intangible facts
    • Less dominating — slightly less desire to seek strong influence and control over others
    • Less stamina — but only slightly lower when working at a fast pace
    • Less decisive — but only slightly less
  1. Behaviour where the two groups are essentially matched
    • The degree of political acumen is almost exactly the same.

So, What’s Keeping Women Out of the Corner Office and the Boardroom?

While there are many forces at play when it comes to women’s access to the biggest executive roles and fair compensation in those roles, the single biggest differentiating factor when it comes to behaviour for female executives is found in their inner belief system.

I found that many of the female leaders I tested scored significantly (10-15%) lower than males in:

  • Self-confidence — where the female executive is promoted to an executive role, it is invariably at the encouragement or “pushing” by a boss or colleague and not self-initiated.
  • Self-respect — they are forever trying to “earn” their self-worth every day and prove they are not what they believe…an impostor.

And they scored significantly higher than males in:

  • Fear of failure – they are more prone to perceive failure as emotionally devastating for their self-esteem.
  • Fear of success – they do not perceive the rewards offset the lifestyle “price tag” of higher career ambition.

Interestingly, even while the female executives in the study were significantly less confident, they were also significantly more intelligent, with an average 10% lead over the males in the study.

The net: females who make it to the top, have not only the skills, smarts and experience, they have the key leadership behaviours to succeed. But that success exacts a far greater emotional price than for their male counterparts.


“The question is not can women succeed at the highest executive levels, but rather do they want to?”




What Businesses Can Do to Build Women’s Potential

Companies can play a role in addressing and improving women’s confidence—and success—in the workplace:

  1. Identify women with high executive talent earlier in their managerial career
  2. Provide them with coaching that enhances their self-esteem, inner confidence, and optimism about their ability to succeed at the executive level
  3. Develop more options for work/life flexibility. There are highly competent women who clearly have executive potential but many are opting out because of the perceived family and lifestyle sacrifice required.

At SuccessFinder, we are working to provide solutions for both insight and action to help women and the businesses they work with, close the gap between success and self fulfillment.

I would love to hear your reactions to this research or your personal story. For more information on the research & methodology – please email me at lcash@successfinder.com.

*Note: my research confirms that female VPs have to be as competent as male CEOs to achieve this level in a corporate setting.

About the Author:

At the age of 9, Larry Cash’s life was almost destroyed by a test that concluded he was mentally challenged. In fact, Larry was dyslexic. A member of the Ontario Psychological Association and an International Affiliate of the American Psychological Association, he’s dedicated his life to understanding the intricacies of human behavior, working to develop training and testing that accurately looks at unique individuality and potential. Larry is the founder of SuccessFinder, a talent assessment and career prediction platform that benchmarks behaviors from more than 40,000 highly successful professionals worldwide, across more than 500 roles.

CEO Research: Mission Imposter

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