When imposter syndrome strikes
Ifeel I should start with the fact that I have a baby face. Once you know me well it’s the least noteworthy thing about me, but when it comes to being a leader and making first impressions, it matters.
Add to that, my job happens to come with a title that in Uganda isn’t often paired with someone my age. We don’t have a “30 Under 30” here; if you’re in charge of a company or organisation, your most likely qualification is seniority. So when it comes to people in leadership positions in Uganda I’m a bit of a rarity.
This doesn’t have too much impact on day-to-day work. After all, no one can tell your age or roundness of your face from an email or phone call.
Fun fact: I’ve been told I sound 40 on the phone so I try to work with that as much as possible. But there have been instances when I have been disrespected because I’m a woman, or young, or both. The fun thing about these instances is you’re never too sure what aspect of your identity is being disrespected because people aren’t always explicit when they decide not to take you seriously. Except there was that one time someone called me “baby boss”. Oh and that other time I was told to wear skirts more often. But a lot of times, there’s the more insidious put-down that you can’t quite place but you do know that it made you question yourself and your abilities.
Funny enough, though, another challenge has been when people take me seriously, with no need for a comment or an explanation. They’re like: “Director. Sure, that sounds about right.” I find that suspicious.
For me, being a young woman in a leadership role means a constant battle with impostor syndrome. Things have got better, but in my first few months in this role I was constantly feeling like a fraud, like the decision to hire me was a terrible mistake that needed to be rectified as soon as possible. Almost two years in and I still feel like that sometimes if I dwell on it.
There’s that quote: “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man”; and in these days of Donald Trump how can I be sitting around feeling underqualified when I’m clearly good enough to be president of the US?
Jokes aside, we can all certainly aspire to greater confidence in ourselves. Take a moment to think about the fact that if you are less confident, you are less likely to pursue future opportunities. But I have also found that I’ve been able to keep impostor syndrome at bay best when I focus on what I’m already good at. Perhaps it’s because I’m fortunate enough to work in the arts where a lot of leadership roles are held by women and so I have no shortage of role models, but even if one was working in a male-centric industry, there are many traits of female-centric leadership styles that create atmospheres of trust and collaboration.
Smile more but not too much, speak more often but don’t be too aggressive. It’s difficult to keep track of the rules in the manual of how to be woman. You can spend your days constantly thinking about how you are viewed, or you can just go ahead and do the damn thing, knowing that not everyone will take you seriously and that there will always be things that lie outside the realm of your control.
What you can do is focus on figuring out how to be a good leader. One of the ways that I try to do this is by having people to look up to, and I have had no shortage of role models from day one. Between my mother, my aunts, my sister and my friends, I suffer from an embarrassment of riches when it comes to phenomenal women who stay shining despite occupying positions in maledominated fields, or dealing with obnoxious colleagues with antiquated views on a woman’s role in the world. I even have a friend whose spirit I call upon every time I’m faced with a catcaller who thinks I’ve just been waiting for the day a pineapple vendor will tell me I’m “his size”.
I have people I can call on specifically about work situations, people to give me a boost and check me; people who I would not be able to maintain my sanity without. I know I have been stupidly fortunate in this regard. But even without a squad (let’s pretend I used that ironically), know that you are not alone, and that the voice that tells you you’re not good enough at your job is just that, a voice. It’s not based in fact. You may constantly underestimate your abilities but may that also mean that you constantly surprise yourself with just how brilliant you are.
Bahana is director of 32º East | Ugandan Arts Trust. This article forms part of a partnership by African youth culture voice that seeks to acknowledge our collective differences and similarities.
Go to twhsg.co.za for more
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