By Candice Lu, founding partner at OnPrem Solution Partners, a consulting and product development firm located in Los Angeles, New York and Austin.
My mom was one of the first female chief residents at Harvard University’s medical school. History and everything else around her told her this was not supposed to be the case. She was 4’10” on a good day, immigrated from the Philippines with barely a dollar in her pocket, and was, to many an aghast spectator in 1970s Boston, a woman in a very male-dominated field.
After reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, I asked my mom to also read it and provide me with any insights on what resonated with her given her road to success. After the last page, she looked at me and said, “Well, that was interesting, but honestly, what got me through Harvard was that I never really thought about the fact that I was a woman, or that I was Asian, or that I didn’t look the part. All I knew was that I was a good doctor. I worked harder than everyone else in the room, and I belonged.”
Unfortunately, not all of us have the luxury of feeling this well equipped. As a woman entrepreneur in the field of business and technology consulting, I run into it time and time again — women who sit quietly in a conference room, afraid to say a word, while their male colleagues confidently speak about topics that they just read about the night before. In fact, a 2020 KPMG study cites that 75% of women executives surveyed experience imposter syndrome, often defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. Why must we overemphasize in our own minds that we are imposters, not worthy of a voice?
From my perspective, here are some tips to consider to avoid feeling like you don’t belong:
1. Know the facts.
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In my early years in consulting at a big firm, I felt so misaligned being in a conference room providing recommendations to chief executive officers (CEOs) about their own business. Who was I, in my early 20s, to tell these executives how to run their companies? What I soon realized was that objectivity and data were everything. If I could do the analysis that proved they were overspending in an area critical to their bottom line and had recommendations around that, why wouldn’t that make sense to relay? Logic, data and research are the best weapons in attacking imposter syndrome. If you know what you’re doing and have the facts to support what you’re talking about, then you obviously have a place at that table.
2. Find mentors who believe in you.
A very helpful element in gaining that confidence is finding people who will proactively position you because they see your capabilities before you do. When I first started consulting, one of the partners in my firm gave me a coaching point that I needed to speak up. He stated that he knew I had good ideas, but I never said them. So he would put me in roles such as meeting facilitator or project manager that forced me to speak and be the one accountable for answering questions to our clients. And each time I had a successful meeting or project, I grew more and more assured of my abilities. Find people who create opportunities for you to prove to yourself that you are capable, over and over again, until you have no choice but to believe it yourself.
3. Find your purpose.
I think one of the most important realizations I had being a woman in a male-dominated field was that you can’t be an imposter when there have been very few predecessors like you to mimic. When people told me that I shouldn’t start my own company because I was pregnant, or that I wasn’t in a position to talk to CEOs because of my age or because there were no women in that boardroom, my reaction to that became that I had to be there because I wasn’t supposed to be there. That generations before me didn’t even have an opportunity to be in that position, and that I owed it to them to prove these sentiments wrong. My purpose is that it is critical that my daughter sees that women belong in that boardroom the same way that my mother paved that path for me. This helps me silence any doubts because there is a higher priority that is beyond what I need to do for myself.
Overall, we have made a lot of strides as women in the workplace. According to McKinsey, female representation among leadership teams has increased over the last five years, though we still only comprise 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs. However, in order for us to continue to grow and break these glass ceilings, we must make sure that we overcome our own internal hurdles to understand that we do belong, that it is our time and that we have every right to be here.