The former US First Lady Michelle Obama recently revealed she is among the many to suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’.

“I still have a little [bit of] imposter syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me,” she told an audience of girls at a London school. “It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities.”

Irrational questioning of your ability

Can you hear that nagging, undermining voice at the back of your mind?  It’s almost certainly wrong. Yet many women at the peak of their careers don’t just hear it, they choose to believe it.

While many will be familiar with that momentary wobble before we step into a meeting, imposter syndrome is a constant self-doubt. It is an irrational questioning of your own ability which can suck away confidence and crush career progression.

It affects men too. Yet women seem particularly prone to these illogical, deeply held feelings of inadequacy.

Being ‘found out’

It isn’t just in our heads. These thoughts influence our feelings, affect decisions and can prevent the grasping of well-deserved career opportunities.

According to the Royal Bank of Scotland’s recent Microbusiness Index, a third of female microbusiness owners surveyed suffer from imposter syndrome.

There they are running successful businesses, providing employment and represent the very bedrock of the economy – microbusinesses make up 94 per cent of Scottish businesses. Yet the women fear they’ll suddenly be “found out”.

The RBS research suggests the women have nothing to worry about and instead should be proud of their achievements. Just over a quarter have become their own boss by the time they’re 35.

The impact of Imposter Syndrome

But if Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou can find herself battling ‘the fear’ – she once said: “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ – what hope for the rest of us?

When it comes to gender discrepancies in the workplace – and in particular at senior levels in UK business – you have to wonder what impact imposter syndrome may be having in preventing women from stepping up the ladder.

The Hampton-Alexander Review, launched by the government in 2016 to increase gender diversity, has recommended that a third of senior FTSE 350 positions be filled by women by 2020.

Targets to meet

Currently, women represent just 25.5 per cent of directors in FTSE 350 companies, mostly in non-executive positions.

To hit its target, 40 per cent of all appointments made in the next two years would need to go to women. This target is likely to be missed.

The UK is already lagging behind on this front. In California, the state has passed a bill proposing at least one woman be appointed to board positions by the end of 2019. In addition, there would be a requirement for two women for every board of five members, and three for boards of six, by 2021.

RTC Women As Leaders programme

Prising open the closed shop of the boardroom in this way may help address the imbalance. But women may doubt themselves and question how they’ve come to be there. This would affect their ability to work effectively at board level and provide men with the excuse that they tried a woman once and it didn’t work out.

There is hope. The RTC ‘Women as Leaders’ course has already helped hundreds of women overcome these irrational thoughts to progress their careers.

But until women shut down that nagging voice of doubt, their biggest career challenge may well be themselves.