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Imposter Syndrome Is Real, But We Must Recognize It As One Of The Things We Can Control

An interview with Kristen Mercuri, Director of Admissions at the Yale School of Management

What does International Women’s Day represent to you personally?  

International Women’s Day is a time to reflect and celebrate the progress being made in equity and access. We honor the sacrifices made, the risks taken, and the achievements made by the many women who dared to advocate for change, paving the way toward equality – a goal yet to be realized. As a woman who grew up with opportunities in sports, education, health and wellness, and other realms that my mother and grandmothers did not, I always had a sense of how far we’d come and how fortunate I was to be born in a country like the U.S. at the time I was. However, I never cease to be shocked by our starting point, and how some women around the world are still there, suffering the devastating outcomes of flawed beliefs about women’s role in society. 

In what ways do you think women have made progress over the years, and where do you see room for more progress?

You will hear a lot about ratios and percentages during Women’s History Month. What’s even more important to me is the on-going evolution of the perceptions and beliefs we hold about ourselves and others. Changing the demographics of who is in the room is one thing, representation is important, but the next step is even harder – ensuring that everyone in the room values different voices, perspectives, and talents. 

If you’re looking for a good read to explore this idea, try Laura Liswood’s book The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity while Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work. Liswood writes about the Noah’s Ark approach to diversity falling short. Having “two of everything” doesn’t mean your organization has achieved diversity. When members of the organization develop the ability to see beyond their own worldview, then you will reap the rewards of diversity. Yes, there are rewards. Diversity is not only a worthy and just pursuit; it leads to better outcomes. For everyone.

Have you faced any particular challenges or obstacles as a woman in business education, and how did you overcome them?

In my experience as a coach of women’s sports and as an admissions officer, I’ve had many conversations about gender equality ranging from Title IX to the admissions process. People tend to focus on what is fair. Surprisingly, that is where the conversation falls apart, because thoughts on what is fair, and for whom, differ. I like to talk about outcomes. When diverse talents, perspectives, and voices are included in the process and in decision-making, you get the best outcomes. Is it a more challenging process? Yes. Might it take longer? Yes. Is friction likely? Yes. But you get the best outcome, whether you are building a championship team or an organization competing in a global marketplace. 

Throughout my career I’ve played a role in identifying and recruiting talent, and in creating opportunities for women to develop as leaders. Without fail, after learning that I was a college coach and now an admissions officer at Yale, there are men who will share their concern about fairness – concerns about men losing opportunities in the name of diversity, Title IX, affirmative action, and so on. They tend to point to data like average GMAT scores, or the difference in revenue between men’s and women’s sports. I’m not focused on revenue; my work is focused on investment. 

Common outcomes of participation in competitive sports are heightened levels of discipline, work ethic, and resilience; an acute understanding of how to build and operate within teams; the development of positive self-esteem and leadership skills. If we know we get the best outcomes for both business and society when women are part of decision making, we need to invest in women’s sports. And we need to invest in women pursuing an MBA. 

As a senior leader in the industry, what advice would you give to women who are just starting their career in business education?

My advice to women starting their MBA journey is to first know that you are needed as thought leaders and decision makers in all industries and across sectors. I’ve had many conversations with women about imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is real, but we must recognize it as one of the things we can control. Forge ahead in your pursuit of a seat at the table, or at the head of the table. You will be joining a collective effort to get us all closer to equality. 

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