BY: Victoria Heath
Speaking on a panel before me at a conference in Nova Scotia were five immensely successful, intelligent, and strong women who had made their mark in the field of security, a historically male-dominated, testosterone-filled industry.
Even these women, however, some of whom were directors in their respective departments, consultants for governments, non-governmental organizations and militaries, suffered from the “imposter syndrome.” Defined by Caltech as a “collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”
During a frank conversation regarding their experiences as women in this field, significant portions of the discussion centered around the issues associated with being viewed as “cute,” “young” and, in some contexts, “the crazy lady in the back,” who voiced her unpopular opinions just a little too loudly during meetings. This is particularly prevalent when you’re the only woman in a meeting on peace building who’s advocating for gender considerations to be brought into the conversation.
Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margo Wallstrom, exemplified this when she pointed out during a recent interview that, after announcing Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy in 2015, the policy was met with “some hesitation, and even some giggling” in the diplomatic meetings she attended.
As the panel discussion came to a close, it dawned on me that almost every woman among the group of about 50 or so, suffered from feeling like an ‘imposter’ in their field at one point or another.
The ‘imposter syndrome,’ and how to defeat it once and for all.
Psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance identified the ‘imposter syndrome’ in 1978, and since then, hundreds of studies and articles have been dedicated to unraveling the concept. In particular, the issue among women has been highlighted over the last few years. Claire Cohen, the deputy women’s editor for The Telegraph, wrote earlier this year that while on a panel discussing the imposter syndrome in London, she had to bite her tongue “to stop myself putting my (small) achievements in life down to luck and happenstance, rather than hard work. I still didn’t feel like I deserved to be on that stage.”
Cohen reiterated that research showed women consistently “undervalue themselves,” and even as more and more women achieve success in their careers, “they still feel they don’t belong.” The gender pay gap doesn’t help the feeing of inadequacy either, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies believes sits at around 23 per cent for graduates 10 years after finishing university. The issue also stems from skewed self-perceptions thanks to unforgiving comparisons to fellow colleagues, celebrities and role models.
Some argue however, that the ‘imposter syndrome’ doesn’t necessarily exist. L.V. Anderson, an associate editor for Slate, wrote that the term has been misconstrued from Clance’s original definition. Clance believed it was a “phenomenon,” not a psychological “syndrome,” which often entails a “cluster of symptoms that cause intense distress or interferes with a person’s ability to function.” In fact, Clance believes the imposter syndrome is something everyone experiences at one time or another–it’s not necessarily a form of “internalized sexism.” Multiple studies have indicated that there is no significant, statistical difference between “self-reported imposter feelings” between men and women, particularly in collegial settings. If that’s the case, then how can we explain the amount of discussion regarding the imposter syndrome among women?
Anderson writes that men are less likely to talk about these issues. She also states, “Impostorism also seems more political and potentially consequential when women experience it. We know that women don’t reach the upper echelons of management in the same numbers as men, but we don’t always agree on why–and women’s insecurity is an appealingly simple explanation that takes the blame off employers.”
Despite the differences in opinion regarding the imposter syndrome, its significance still holds true. If everyone experiences it at one time or another, how does it affect their overall performance and self-confidence? Clance believes there are varying degrees of the imposter syndrome, depending on already-existing issues such as depression and anxiety, but ultimately, “Many people can live with it, and it changes as they get experience in a job.” She suggests that the simple task of talking about it, frankly and honestly, is important in order to let people know that they’re not alone. Cohen agrees, arguing that the “key to beating imposter syndrome” is to share your fears.