Powerful Women & The Imposter Syndrome

4 minute read

Below is an excerpt from Shannon McFayden’s keynote speech, in which she shared a general hypothesis about the factors that impact and shape women’s perceptions of their roles at home and at work.

Why is the thought of being called “powerful” uncomfortable for me, and perhaps for many women?

According to findings from a fairly recent study of Caldecott award-winning books (one of the two highest achievements in children’s literature), at least part of the answer may be found in how women are portrayed in children’s literature.

Here’s a breakdown of that study’s initial results:

  • For every 1 female portrayed in a leadership role, there are 10 males.
  • The books portrayed 140 different occupations for men.
  • Only 40 different occupations were written for women.

Not surprisingly, the role of mother/ housewife/stay-at-home mom was held by more than 60% of female characters in these award-winning books. However, you may be shocked to learn which role this study found to be the second most popular portrayed by women in children’s literature….


Let’s think about that. Witches. They’re ugly, they’re mean, and they die a horrible, wretched death, alone. But they are powerful women.

It’s especially impactful when contrasted to the third most popular role for women:

Princess. Beautiful, kind, gentle, rescued by Prince Charming. And powerless. They don’t die alone. They die in a handsome man’s arms.

How might these images of powerful women shape and impact readers’ images of their own roles in the home and in the workplace? What conclusions might some young girls be drawing from the stories read to them at night? If we grow up believing that if you want to be a leader, you have to be a mom, or be a witch (ugly, mean, but powerful) –  or be a sweet princess — it’s no wonder we are hesitant to claim our power.

CLIP: Shannon’s keynote at the 2015 She Is Summit.

However, while this research certainly raises fascinating questions and may play a role in shaping young women’s views of what it means to be powerful and successful (both at home and at work), there’s another important phenomenon at play.

The Imposter Syndrome

In a famous study, psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes studied high-achieving business women, professors, medical experts, politicians, military leaders and other leaders in their fields. Their conclusion was that even the world’s most successful women struggle with the notion of “power.” A recurring theme in their research was that women have a very difficult time owning their own accomplishments. Instead, they show a tendency to attribute their success to luck, good timing, perseverance  or other external factors. These women felt they had fooled other people into thinking they were smarter and more capable than they truly felt themselves to be. They felt like imposters. And at any minute, they were going to be found out.  

CLIP: Shannon’s keynote at the 2015 She Is Summit.

I have yet to meet a woman in my professional life who does not resonate with this. If it touches a nerve with you, you’re not alone. The good news is your humility is endearing. It causes people to want to follow you and work with you.

I want to reinforce this with all women at Red Ventures, and all women in business. We are not imposters. We are smart, savvy accomplished, intelligent, and powerful women.

It makes us powerful that we are so good at collaborating and seeking and listening to other ideas. It makes us powerful that we are skilled at building nurturing and trusting relationships. It makes us powerful that we are so good at understanding and managing processes that lead to great results and that energize and empower teams along the way. It makes us powerful that we can manage so many balls in the air, rarely dropping one. It makes us powerful that we are good at helping and nurturing and knowing when and how to tend to those who need it, especially in times of crisis. It makes us powerful that we are cautious and controlled and uninhibited by peer pressure when evaluating risk. It makes us powerful that we have strong intuition.

I believe our real power as women will be leveraged by ourselves and organizations when we have the courage to lead with our strengths and talents. To be our authentic selves. To play by our rules.

We are not promoting a “women are better than men” mentality. Men are wonderful and strongly needed in the workplace, too. Any group is stronger when there are diverse world-views and diverse ways of looking at things at every level of the organization, including at the top.

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About the Author:

Shannon McFayden

Shannon McFayden has worked with Red Ventures since 2010, helping to coach and develop senior leaders, cultivate our unique culture, and build out our people organization. Prior to RV, she spent 30 years in financial services, with her last role being EVP and head of Human Resources, Corporate Communications and Community Relations for the 4th largest bank in the US. When she isn’t working at RV, she enjoys the North Carolina mountains with her husband of 34 years, hiking, playing with their dogs, readying their Empty Nest for grandkids (but no pressure, T & L), and recovering from the pace at RV.

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