KPMG Report: Most Female Executives Experience Self-doubt

A majority of female executives across a range of industries have experienced feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, or imposter syndrome, at certain points in their careers, according to a new report from KPMG, an audit, tax, and advisory firm with a Detroit office.
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female executive in corner office
A KPMG study found that most female executives have experienced feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. // Stock photo

A majority of female executives across a range of industries have experienced feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, or imposter syndrome, at certain points in their careers, according to a new report from KPMG, an audit, tax, and advisory firm with a Detroit office.

The participants say they believe the syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America. “Advancing the Future of Women in Business: A KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report” polled 750 high-performing executive women who are one or two career steps away from the C-suite and have participated in the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit.

“KPMG has a long-standing commitment to the advancement, development, and empowerment of women, which extends beyond our organization and into the broader marketplace,” says Paul Knopp, CEO and U.S. chair of KPMG. “It is important for organizations to gain a more thorough understanding of the specific issues women may face as they advance in their careers and as they move toward the C-suite. We hope the thought-provoking findings and solutions in this study help leaders everywhere as we work to further advance inclusion and diversity.”

The study shows that 75 percent of executive women report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their career, and 85 percent believe imposter syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America. Of the women polled, 74 percent said they believe their male counterparts do not experience feelings of self-doubt as much as female leaders do, while 81 percent said they believe they put more pressure on themselves not to fail than men.

“It’s important to realize that most women experience similar doubts at some point in our careers,” says Laura Newinski, U.S. deputy chair and COO of KPMG. “Our contribution as leaders is pivotal. Together, we have the opportunity to build corporate environments that foster a sense of belonging and lessen the experience of imposter syndrome for women in our workplaces.”

Nearly half – 47 percent – of executive women said their feelings of self-doubt result from never expecting to reach the level of success they have achieved. The same percentage reported having a supportive performance manager was most valuable in helping reduce feelings of imposter syndrome, and 29 percent said feeling valued and being rewarded fairly was most valuable.

Due to a variety of external factors, 56 percent reported having been afraid they won’t live up to expectations or that people around them will not believe they are as capable as expected.

To overcome imposter syndrome, 72 percent of executive women looked to the advice of a mentor or trusted adviser when doubting their abilities to take on new roles.

Of the women surveyed, 54 percent said the more successful they become, the lonelier it gets at the top because they enter new peer groups. However, 32 percent of women identified with imposter syndrome because they did not know others in a similar place personally or professionally.

The executives included in the survey are from more than 150 organizations and were nominated by their CEOs to participate in the summit. The full report is available here.

The KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit is in its sixth year and brings together top leaders from business, politics, sports, and the media to help forge a path for female leaders to the C-suite.

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