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The Imposters are amongst us

When the Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce asked me to be a keynote speaker at their Women’s Business Conference 2018, it didn’t take me long to say yes. Flattery is always a great incentive. Then slight panic crept in. Why me? A woman, yes, in business for a good 25 years, living and working in Worcestershire. All boxes ticked. Still, why me? Was I worthy?

I’d been a speaker at industry events many times before, talking about what I know: communications, film production etc. The idea of standing up in front of 100 successful business women from a variety of sectors was an entirely different proposition. What on earth could I talk about that wouldn’t make them hasten the advent of the next toilet break?

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It was up to me to pick the topic, so the pressure was on. I couldn’t possibly talk about film (not relevant to all), or about my career (too self-centered). What was that holy grail that would unify the audience and grab their attention, that was relevant, timely and pressing?

Ironically, my own self-doubt over the ability to find that elusive thing eventually helped me identify it: The Confidence Gap. It’s not new and has been debated for a while. Yet in the context of the more recent #MeToo campaign and paygap discussion it had lost traction. Yet the evidence is everywhere.  

Wind back to March this year. Our drp team had a stand at the Worcestershire Skills Show. We’d been asked to make it interactive for students, and we did: our GFX Zone offered students to try their hand at character animation, while our AR Zone featured augmented reality games and other applications. We were confident to attract the attention of the best young talent.

From the moment the doors opened, we were inundated. However, after a while we noticed that whilst the male students elbowed their way to the front to get their hands on our GFX and AR kit, their female counterparts didn’t. They hovered in the background, on tiptoes, trying to get but a tiny glimpse. We were baffled. My two female colleagues and I tried to encourage them forward. The response was (almost) always the same: “I could never do that”. We were no longer baffled, but genuinely shocked.

The next day, coincidentally International Women’s day, I wrote a blog about the experience and published it on LinkedIn: ‘Don’t you tell me you could never do that”. The response – from women of all ages - was tremendous. I’d put my finger somewhere where it really hurt.

Looking further into the matter I learnt that there is, in fact, a confidence gene. Some people have it, others don’t. Interestingly, the ratio of those who have it is the same for women and men. So, if by nature, there’s no gender difference why then, do so many more women “suffer” from a lack of confidence compared with men? In a case of nature versus nurture, are girls still being conditioned differently from boys? My own upbringing bore no evidence for that. My parents had never set me any limits and always encouraged me. I was brought up no different to my brother.

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The first direct glimpse of this not being the norm I got when I had my first job interview. I was in my early 20s, had studied journalism with a focus on radio and had been told I had real talent. I was so confident that the prospect of being interviewed by a really famous broadcaster didn’t faze me.

The interview went well, and so did the challenge of doing a pretend 2-minute live report. I was on fire and got a round of applause from the radio producers in the room. From all, bar one: our main man. He just smiled and spoke the immortal words: “That was nice. But perhaps you should focus on your future role as wife and mother.” Boom. The eagle had crash landed.

Although I’ve never forgotten this episode, I managed to put it behind me and did have a career in radio before moving into corporate communications. Thanks to those around me – many of them women – who never stopped encouraging me.

As I stood and told all this to my audience, I realised to my great relief that none of them made an early dash to the facilities. There were nods, smiles, and collective gasps as many of them recognised that they, too, had felt like an imposter at some point in their careers, wondering whether they were good enough.

"Ironically, my own self-doubt over the ability to find that elusive thing eventually helped me identify it: The Confidence Gap."

But recognition and agreement alone doesn’t lead to a solution. What can we actually do to change this? My final appeal to the room was to do our collective bit: if we all – and this includes you, dear readers - just made it our mission to not only be aware, and to encourage and mentor young girls and women where possible, it will make a difference. One girl at a time.

PS I received a huge amount of feedback from women in the audience saying thank you for raising the issue. I wanted to share just one of the messages I got, from a very experienced business woman:

Hello Dagmar, I recently saw you speak whilst attending the Chambers Woman's business conference - very inspiring and interesting. I have definitely suffered with "imposter syndrome" over the years, especially when I secured my most recent role.  I thought it was just me feeling that way so it was interesting to hear you verbalise it. I just wanted to say thank you - it has given me something to think about and hopefully something I can help other women with I work with.

By Dagmar Mackett - Director of Film & Video