Imposter syndrome: If you’re a woman in construction, it’s not all in your head
What exactly is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome, it’s that feeling that you don’t deserve to be there, and you don’t know what you’re doing. At any moment, people will reveal that you’re a fraud and that you don’t belong.
Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters‘ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.
“Why do I feel like a fraud even though I’m eminently qualified for this job?” Despite having education and training, many have never been able to break free of doubting their worthiness and step into any a higher level of success.
Imposter syndrome goes back to our early days as human beings. It’s a biological response that you are at risk, that someone will recognize that you’re different and call you out for not belonging.
If you’re a woman in the construction industry and you’re looking around, and you don’t see people who look like you, it reinforces this idea that you don’t belong, that you’re an imposter.
Imposter syndrome isn’t only in your head.
Until recently, imposter syndrome was considered an internal problem, something that’s in your head, and the best strategy to overcome it is to build mental strength and confidence.
Common strategies to overcome imposter syndrome include saying mantras, labelling your thoughts, doing power poses and writing down all of your accomplishments. These strategies do work as they help you to move beyond your self-doubt and into action. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
There is new research that explores the idea that imposter syndrome is not all in your head.
“We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field.”
Dr. Emily Hu
Why do you have to act like someone you’re not to fit in?
Because there are so many men in leadership positions in the construction industry, the leadership and communications expectations are based on stereotypical male traits.
Men naturally veer towards a transactional leadership style.
A transactional leadership style is one in which “job performance as a series of transactions to be rewarded or disciplined. A leader establishes give-and-take relationships that appeal to subordinates’ self-interests. Such leaders manage in the conventional manner of clarifying subordinates responsibilities, rewarding them for meeting objectives, and correcting them for failing to meet objectives”
Women naturally veer towards a transformational leadership style.
Transformational leadership focuses on motivating and engaging followers with a vision of the future.“Transformational leaders establish themselves as role models by gaining followers’ trust and confidence….Such leaders mentor and empower followers, encourage them to develop their full potential and….contribute more effectively to their organizations
The expectations on construction industry leaders – i.e. what’s on your performance review, how you’re taught to lead and who gets promoted are primarily based on a transactional leadership style. That means you are instructed to lead and communicate in a way that may not come naturally to you.
Your inside doesn’t match your outside, so you feel like a fraud because you’re spending mental energy every day trying to communicate and behave in a way that is counter to your natural leadership gifts and instincts.
Construction is a male-dominated industry. Did you know that 47% of women in construction have never had a female manager or role model? When you don’t see people who look or act like you in leadership positions, of course, you will feel like you don’t belong because you do stand out.
“Who is deemed ‘professional’ is an assessment process that’s culturally biased and skewed,” said Tina Opie, an associate professor at Babson College, in an interview last year. When employees from marginalized backgrounds try to hold themselves up to a standard that no one like them has met (and that they’re often not expected to be able to meet), the pressure to excel can become too much to bear. The once-engaged Latina woman suddenly becomes quiet in meetings. The Indian woman who was a sure shot for promotion gets vague feedback about lacking leadership presence. The trans woman who always spoke up doesn’t anymore because her manager makes gender-insensitive remarks. The Black woman whose questions once helped create better products for the organization doesn’t feel safe contributing feedback after being told she’s not a team player. For women of color, universal feelings of doubt become magnified by chronic battles with systemic bias and racism.”
– Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome, Harvard Business Review, February 2021
At any moment, someone can point out that you’re not showing up as your authentic self. It’s not in your head; it’s true.
Men created the construction industry for men.
Caroline Criado Pérez shares an interesting perspective in her book Invisible Women, Data Bias in a world designed for men. She tells the story of Wendy Davis, ex-director of the Women’s Design Service in the UK. Wendy questions the standard size of a bag of cement. It’s a comfortable weight for a man to lift – but it doesn’t actually have to be that size, she points out. ‘If they were a bit smaller than women could lift them.’ Davis also takes issue with the standard brick size. ‘I’ve got photographs of my (adult) daughter holding a brick. She can’t get her hand around it. But (her husband) Danny’s hand fits perfectly comfortably. Why does a brick have to be that size? It doesn’t have to be that size.
She also notes that the typical A1 architects’ portfolio fits nicely under most men’s arms while most women’s arms don’t reach around it – and again has photos of her daughter and her husband to prove it.
It’s a systemic issue.
Things have been done this way for so long that it has become a part of the culture. Have you ever heard the saying ‘That’s just the way things are done in the industry’
Changing industry culture is the ultimate answer. However, this is complex and will take a lot of time. According to the World Economic Forum 2021 Gender Gap Report, another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity. At the current rate of progress, we will achieve equality in 135.6 years globally.
Unfortunately, if you wait around for things to change, it will be too late. In the meantime, here are some strategies to navigate these feelings that you don’t belong:
What women can do
- Recognize that it’s not all in your head. Stop thinking that you need to be the same as men. Own that you aren’t the same and recognize that distinction.
- Don’t try to fill a man’s construction boots. Make space for your own.
- Preparation – get allies who know what you’re capable of delivering. They can back you up, introduce you in meetings, attribute your ideas back to you and ensure your voice is heard.
- Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in your head. Recognize these thoughts of imposter syndrome for what they are, a reminder that you bring something different to the table.
What men can do
- Recognize the diversity that women bring to the table and their different leadership skills and behaviours.
- Pause to listen and learn. Recognize that there may be another approach to doing things.
- Give credit, and ask women to speak up.
- Recognize that women face a double bind – if they speak up and are more assertive, they may be perceived as too aggressive. If they don’t speak up, they may be perceived as not demonstrating leadership skills in a traditional sense.
What organizations can do
- Educate people on the different types of leadership and communication styles.
- Get curious about your performance review system. What behaviours are you rewarding? How do you measure success in your company?
If you’re interested in continuing this conversation or learning more about how Ambition Theory accelerates female construction professionals into leadership positions. We would love to connect with you.
Ambition Theory Founder, Andrea Janzen
Andrea is a Certified Executive Coach with an MBA, the host of the Ambition Theory Podcast, a Forbes contributor and a top-rated speaker.
She is passionate about coaching women in AEC to develop themselves, set leadership goals and get results. Since 2018, Andrea has coached and trained over 1,000 construction professionals.
Professional Coaching & Leadership Training for Women in Construction.
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