September 9, 2022
By Riya Shanmugam
Just over six years ago, I took a job at Google leading a team of customer engineers for Google Cloud. At that point, I was well into my career. I had worked for a decade previously at leading tech companies like IBM, AMD and Infosys, growing from an engineering role to leading larger teams and connecting our technology strategy to business goals.
Yet even with my background and resume, I often felt like I didn’t belong at Google. I would find myself thinking things like, “Everyone here is so smart. How did I end up here? Who did I fool to get hired at Google?” I am a millennial executive, an immigrant and a woman of color. Each of these experiences makes it more likely that I’ll experience these doubts, and we often refer to these feelings of inadequacy as “imposter syndrome.” It’s exactly this description — imposter syndrome — that reinforces concepts like the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap.
Imposter syndrome disproportionately affects women. According to a 2019 study from Heriot-Watt University and the School for CEOs, more than half (54%) of women experience feelings of imposter syndrome, while just 24% of men report the same. These intangible feelings — hesitation, lack of confidence, lack of belonging — lead directly to women being passed over for promotions and salary increases, reinforcing the most insidious aspects of the glass ceiling.
Branding feelings of inadequacy or lack of belonging as “imposter syndrome” provides us with a description of the problem — an excuse — but not a solution. Instead of talking about the problem itself, it’s time to start talking about what that problem makes us do and how we can overcome it. With the right mindset, we can rethink imposter syndrome and use those feelings to level the playing field.
Don’t be muzzled by doubt
While taking on a new role can cause you to feel inadequate, it can also drive you to prove the reasons why you belong. In my case, these feelings keep me deeply grounded and humbled regardless of what position I’m in. These doubts also motivate me to prove something to those who underestimate me. If I feel like I’m surrounded by people who are more accomplished, more talented or more experienced, it pushes me to be a better version of myself. Instead of thinking that I haven’t earned the right to be in the room, I focus on how I can stay essential to remain part of the conversation.
My time at Google and then on led me through a transformation. Even though I was surrounded by some of the world’s leading technology experts, I realized that there was a reason why they hired me: I had something valuable to bring to the table. By the end of my experience, I had struck the right balance. Perhaps most importantly, I found that other Google employees and I were developing important feelings of mutual respect: respect for each other regardless of our differences, and respect and appreciation for what we each bring to the table.
Defend your seat at the table
“Imposter syndrome” has a negative reputation for a reason. Getting trapped in feelings of anxiety and inadequacy can hinder your growth and prevent you from showing why you were hired in the first place.
There will always be moments that could cause you to slip back into those old feelings of inadequacy. In my new role, I was recently in a meeting with my boss and two executives from other great companies. The thought process in the room was clear immediately: the other executives assumed that I was my boss’s executive assistant, yet another woman of color supporting her white male boss. A few years ago, this type of assumption may have affected me and caused me to question my seat at the table. Now I know that I can simply say what I want to say, and everyone will realize why I earned my place in that room.
Let’s stop talking about imposter syndrome. Instead, let’s talk about the drive and motivation that will lead women to the roles and opportunities they deserve.
Riya Shanmugam is group vice president of global alliances and channels at New Relic. She joined New Relic from Adobe, where she was the global head of cloud adoption and customer success. Prior to Adobe, she served as a customer engineering leader at Google Cloud. She also held technical and strategic advisory roles for IBM, AMD, Infosys and several hyper-growth startups.
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