Imposter Syndrome: Combatting Roadblocks Faced by Female Leaders

Ashleigh Conwell

Ashleigh Conwell is a seasoned leader at Flight Centre, with over 10 years’ experience in marketing strategy and implementation. Here, Ashleigh shares her insights on overcoming obstacles for female leaders and driving gender equality in the workplace.

“Workplace leader.”

I want you to close your eyes and imagine the personification of those two words. What do they look like in human form? 

More often than not people will picture a clean-cut, middle-aged man in a suit. Perhaps he’s holding a briefcase, or holding court in a conference room.

But for me at least, the words ‘workplace leader’ don’t look like anything in particular. They do, however, represent a very particular set of skills and principles.

A workplace leader is someone who has the ability to unlock the potential of their people. Leaders provide a positive and trusting environment where people are challenged, inspired, empowered and supported. They celebrate with the team and incorporate leadership, coaching and mentoring techniques to get the best out of their people.

And until the point that the middle-aged man in a suit loses his place as the archetypal representation in our mind’s eye, we’ve got some work to do in terms of gender imbalance in the workforce.

Female leadership and imposter syndrome

I’ve always been ambitious, and I’ve always been transparent about my goals. I demonstrate initiative, I’m passionate about what I do, and I’m always looking to improve.

These traits have enabled me to work my way into a leadership position at a fairly young age. But it continues to concern me, particularly in the position I enjoy now, that the word ‘bossy’ tends to be used for females who are assertive leaders, while the terms ‘direct’ and ‘confident’ and often used for males displaying the same behaviour.

Because of this, female leaders often suffer from imposter syndrome – where an individual can begin to doubt their accomplishments, and needlessly worry about being exposed as a fraud.  While it might be true that we have already come a long way as a society and in the corporate world in terms of addressing the gender imbalance, we still have a long way to go.

A personal or organisational approach?

In reality, imposter syndrome is a symptom of a far larger problem. So how do we begin to rectify such an issue?

One solution is to directly address the gender imbalance. Many leading companies have committed to C-suite and boardroom targets for female representation. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.

But I feel as though equal representation is one thing, and perception is another. Will fixing the gender imbalance automatically see the end of ‘bossy’ descriptions for females? Perhaps not.

Even for the fiercest female leaders, confidence seems to be a major barrier when talking about their fears and imposter syndrome. To combat these personal doubts, I recommend that leaders – both male and female – step out of their comfort zone, and regularly put their hand up for something new, strange, or outside of their day-to-day role. If you continue to step outside of it, your comfort zone will get larger over time. Exposure to challenging situations sees them become more comfortable.

I also encourage team members to have a support network around them; a dream team of leaders, mentors, peers and colleagues. These should be people who you trust, who are experts in their field, and who inspire, challenge, encourage and support you.

Between personal evolution and strong support, you can guard yourself against imposter syndrome and the other discomforts that can so often be present in any organisation.

Focusing on leadership fundamentals

In certain situations, I think gender can be an easy label or excuse. I’ve witnessed poor leadership and behaviours from both males and females, and to me this is more often down to personality, rather than gender.

Sure, gender bias exists, but I also believe that people are far too complex to say that this issue is the root cause of everything.

Strong female leaders bring something unique to an organisation. We need diversity. We need both male and female energies and perspectives. We need to normalise female leadership before we can take full advantage of it.

Flight Centre’s focus on female leadership

Flight Centre is a unique organisation, in that 75% of our global workforce is female. This has allowed us to be more proactive than most in our quest for gender balance and female leadership representation.

Our approach is best summed up by our Womenwise program, which was established in 2015 by a group of Flight Centre's senior female leaders. The aim of Womenwise is to inspire all women by showcasing opportunities, providing mentors and role-models, and offering structured support to ensure gender balance in all leadership teams across FCTG.

I’d like to think that when our team members close their eyes and think of a workplace leader, they see a version of themselves holding that briefcase or standing in that conference room.

To find out more about how we’re championing gender equality, check out our job opportunities or read more about Flight Centre Travel Group at fctgcareers.com

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