We Speak HR: Glass Ceilings, The Impostor Syndrome & Everything in Between

My 5 ‘o’ clock alarm rang and I could see a hint of the sun coming through my windows. It was the First of April and that new year smell had officially faded. All those new year resolutions I had loudly proclaimed and the better person I was destined to become had kind of just melted away into the 90 days, Happy April Fools to me!

However, all was not lost, like the old adage goes ‘it takes a village’ and my goals & ambitions were my proverbial child. Thus I went to my ‘village’ and they did not disappoint, they never do. This is what I came back with.

If you were starting out in your career today what would you prioritize

Nasia Nelisiwe Seyuba the Talent Acquisition, Management & Engagement Head at ZANACO tells the story of how she was told to make a considered decision about her first employer, and not accept the first thing that comes her way. “It seemed like unrealistic advice then, and even now, but I completely agree with this sentiment and share this advice with other young people. Starting your career in the right organisation makes a significant difference in your initial exposure and subsequent progression. So one’s priority should be identifying which organisations will enable broad experience and exposure, so that you have time to identify the direction in which you’d like to take your career and eventually specialise in down the line. Very large organisations tend to have specialised roles, and one needs to find out how often people in that organisation are rotated or progress to different roles. Small to medium organisations have less people doing more diverse work, so one tends to gain more experience in such roles. You need to be realistic however about your progression in small to medium organisations, especially family owned ones, and put clear timelines in place of how long you would want to stay and learn and give back to the organisation, before you need to move on.”

Dr Mercy Mumba an Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama says she would prioritize having a personal strategic plan. “I often get asked how I managed to get so much done so quickly in my career. One of the things that has been beneficial for me has been having a strategic plan for my personal career trajectory. The problem is that most of us only think about strategic plans in association with corporations or organizations. What we forget is that those organizations are made up of people. Unfortunately, if people are not reaching their full potential within their work environments, they will not contribute to the mission and vision of the company. This is why we should all set SMART goals for ourselves and have the discipline to follow through with what we commit to achieving. Many of us have dreams and goals, but we lack the necessary discipline to follow through.”

Nasia adds that identifying a mentor in one’s field is of great importance. “I understand that this isn’t always easy and is quite a daunting thought. But one needs to put themselves out there and proactively seek out respected professionals in their field of interest, and reach out to seek mentorship opportunities.”  She closes off this chapter by referencing the agility and dynamism required in the careers of tomorrow “The world of work has taken an interesting turn and will continue to grow in a direction which is unfamiliar for many. Keeping up to date with trends and informed on what is coming in the future, and ensuring that your own skills, knowledge and experience are aligned, will give you a competitive edge.”

Do you think the glass ceiling is still a factor in this day & age?

The glass ceiling – that invisible barrier to advancement that women face in the top levels of work.

Dr Tamala Tonga Kambikambi the Deputy Vice Chancellor at Cavendish University and the previously introduced Dr Mumba were of the view that the glass ceiling continues to persist. Dr Mumba regales a tale about a conversation she recently had about this very topic “ I love that everyday we hear about one more female CEO, or CFO and all those great things. However, I was having a conversation with my husband a few weeks ago and one of the things that I told him was that although I love all this “progress” I’m sceptical about whether or not the titles come with the authority to perform the duties and responsibilities of that position, otherwise, position without power doesn’t amount to anything.”

 Additionally, Dr Kambikambi states the effects of the glass ceiling can be starkly seen by a glance at the top of industry and government where the faces remain predominantly men. “What I am hoping is that the coming in of technology will somehow shift this balance. I mean that for instance while previously one had to be physically at the workplace to carry out their duties, now one can work off the premises and be able to accommodate other social needs. There is thus a lot of promise with the coming in of say – artificial intelligence which can help us break this glass ceiling for the young women coming in after us.” I smile as she says this because she always tells the story of how she was one of the few females in her masters’ class and she would attend them with her baby in tow on her back. I can’t help but understand her context and how being able to work remotely would have made her life easier.

Concluding, Dr Mumba advises that those taking positions at the top should ensure that their positions come with the commensurate authority and power to effectively carry out the duties of the offices they are accepting.

Research has shown that most women experience the ‘imposter syndrome’ as they go up the corporate ladder, what would be your advice to get over it?

The impostor syndrome is a psychological condition where one feels they are incapable or incompetent despite the successes they have had. Research shows that those who are high achievers often identify with this state of mind

Yes the inner doubts that have plagued you over the years have a name and here are some amazing ways to conquer them.

Dr Charlotte Hughes Huntley, an Epidemiologist, Consultant and Podcaster calls out the role of intentionality in all that we do, “It is important to intentionally build confidence in yourself. You can do this by practicing it on every step of your journey.  Keeping a written or digital journal is a great way to do this.  Keep a record of your challenges and your accomplishments on a regular basis, big or small.  Over time, that journal becomes “evidence” of your growth.  Reviewing that documentation regularly can help you build confidence in yourself because you’re reviewing the facts, and fighting the feelings that are generated by impostor syndrome.  Make sense?  I hope so, because it works for me!”

Having personally had mild cases of the impostor syndrome, Nasia explained how nothing gave her more confidence in her abilities than gaining information, experience and a proven track record of what she can achieve.  “As you go up the corporate ladder, you need to keep challenging yourself to greater heights, but make a conscious effort to stop and take stock of your successes along the way. It helps to surround yourself with people whom you admire, who give you open and honest feedback about how you’re doing. Having people you look up to, tell you that you’re doing well, has a positive psychological impact and may cushion the voices you have inside which are telling you otherwise. Actively seeking feedback from others on your areas of improvement also helps you understand how others see you and where you could improve. Constructive criticism is something you need to learn to stomach and work with to become better. It may also help to seek out and surround yourself with people who challenge you intellectually. They will keep you on your toes and at the top of your game, which can only be a positive for your performance as a result. My wish for women out there, is that the voices (internal or external) telling them that they can do it, are louder than those telling them they can’t.”

Hindsight being what it is, Dr Kambikambi said she wished she knew then what she knows now. Armed with that 20/20 vision she advices the following;  

  1. Stop being a perfectionist! It is alright to not be at 100%. Do the best that you can and that should be good enough for you and to those who have your best interests at heart.
  2. Stop fearing failure. You are bound to fail sometimes and it is alright. Learn from your failures – pick up the pieces and move on.
  3. When self-doubt creeps in – do some detective work! Gather specific evidence that highlights how qualified you are for your job.
  4. Stop being a soloist where you feel you should accomplish tasks on your own. Ask for help when necessary.

My parting words, “see uncertainty as a strength”.

Dr Mumba brought a whole new perspective to the problem. “Regardless of the culture, women are usually less likely to blow their own horn or to express pride in their own work. Although that is sometimes seen as humility, it is a deterrent to career progression for most women. What ends up happening is that a man- who may or may not be a good as the woman ends up getting the job or the promotion because they know how to talk about themselves in a good light. One of the ways I have personally dealt with this feeling, which sadly sometimes creeks up, is to remind myself of all the wonderful things I’ve done, the expertise I bring to the table, and to be honest with myself about just how much effort I have put into what I have accomplished. I also practice positive self-talk. Even when I make a mistake, I don’t dwell on it- I try to see areas of improvement and focus on what I need to do to get better, rather than to beat myself up for not doing something right. Another thing I do is to have friends and colleagues who are honest with me and let me know when I’m doing something right or when my effort is falling short. We all need those people who when they say “job well done” you might as well give yourself a pat on the back, because unfortunately, there are many more who will say “proud of you” when they know you just royally screwed up 😊”

While its difficult to have a sit at ‘the table’ having a voice at the table is even harder, how do you traverse that particular challenge?

Diana Kangwa-Muya the Chief Operating Officer of ZANACO brought her numerous ‘table experiences’ in tackling this question. “I personally believe it is more difficult to get a seat at the table as how you get that seat determines your ability or willingness to have a voice at that table. What I find in my experience is when one is not performing up to expectation as far as meeting targets or exceeding expectation is concerned, they will not have the courage to challenge any thorny issues in other areas of the organisation as they risk being reminded of their own shortcomings. I also feel if competence is not why you found a seat at the table, your voice is almost automatically muzzled due to loyalty obligations.”

Dr Mumba adds that when she gets invited to have a “seat at the table” her first question is always ‘what expertise to I bring to the table?’. “Then I also want to know how I can positively contribute to the mission of the group. I then ask myself if I believe in what the team is doing and if it is something I’m passionate about. Lastly, I ask myself- what’s in it for me. The answers to these questions really determine if I even choose to sit at the table or not. The problem is that many of us are so eager to have a seat at the table that we do not even critically analyse our purpose for sitting at the table. Asking yourself these questions says a lot about who you are as a person, what you value, and the fact that you respect your time. If your estimation, after answering these questions is that your opinion/expertise is not needed or valued, don’t waste your time. You could be doing something else that enhances your career instead. Don’t waste your time with people who do not appreciate your value or perspective. Don’t be a seat warmer 😊.”

What advice (general & far reaching) would you give a younger version of yourself?

“You don’t have to be the best at everything” Dr Mumba stated. “I was so obsessed with being number 1 all the time. I had to learn that you win some and then you lose some, and that’s ok. Be good at something and do it well. Everything else will fall into place.

I’d like to thank all the amazing individuals who participated in this. I appreciate your time, I appreciate your experience and most importantly I appreciate your belief in me. Thank you.