Today I want to discuss the concept of 'Imposter Syndrome'; to understand it, spot it, and prevent the self-limitation imposed on us by society. This term has been criticised recently. Some argue it suggests a psychological issue as opposed to a structural one, negatively reinforcing it. Whatever the name, this is a problem that needs to be addressed. The articles sourced discuss the terminology if you wish to read more. Many people will experience imposter syndrome, feeling out of place and undeserving, or assuming that other people don’t think they have the skills/qualifications or characteristics to be there. In line with this month’s topic, part of this post will consider how classism contributes to imposter syndrome experienced by the working class, particularly women. I will also describe my own feelings of imposter syndrome even before entering a professional work environment, particularly in the sporting world.
Why do we as women put ourselves down/underestimate ourselves? The answer is simple. We have internalised the messages society throws at us from all sides in a subconscious conditioning, which in turn affects our behaviour and self-image, becoming our own barrier. This results in imposter syndrome, a term introduced in 1978 by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes. I noticed this in myself and other women but had never attributed it to gender stereotypes or a phenomenon. I experienced two consecutive events when this suddenly made sense. I went for a swim with my friend. The lanes are labelled with different speeds: slow, medium, and fast. My friend asked in which lane I would swim. I contemplated: I know I am a good swimmer (I used to compete), I look at the fast lane, and there are two men swimming. Looking at their speed and technique I quickly conclude that I am better. This sounds conceited and arrogant, and I know that, so automatically I say I’m going in the medium one (where there are 3 people). Why? She asked, there are fewer people in the fast one. Why had I decided that I didn’t belong in the fast lane? My mum is also a strong swimmer, so later I asked her what lane she goes in. My brother happened to be in the room and unprovoked responded: the fast one obviously. I was confused about how easily he asserted this; I am definitely a better swimmer than him. This is when it hit me.
No one was telling me I couldn’t go in the fast lane, but I chose not to for fear of being seen as arrogant and conceited. The trouble with this is a man putting himself in the fast lane is confident, strong, and macho, he belongs there. My brother didn’t have my consideration and hesitation even though I am more proficient. The lane system is a hierarchy, the fast lane is at the top, our social conditioning tells us this is reserved for dominant, strong alpha males. Men are celebrated for having these characteristics, whereas women are ridiculed. This prevents women from being assertive. So, I subconsciously barred myself from the fast lane and did not even question it until someone else did.
This sparked a realisation about all the other aspects of my life where I put myself down to fit into the characteristics assigned to me by society. I’ve been running for 8 years, competitively for 5. However, at the start of races when men barge forward and stand boldly at the front, I feel that for me to do the same would meet severe judgement, so I stay back and end up overtaking most of them. The same behaviour is described differently depending on gender, here men are confident, and women are arrogant. What concerns me more is the manifestation of this problem in the professional world. From my experience in recruitment and further research (see articles below) a common theme has emerged. Women with the same experience as men will state their aspirational salaries noticeably lower than their male counterparts. They are also more likely to understate their achievements and don’t put themselves forward for leadership roles for fear of being seen as arrogant/fundamentally unfeminine. This is reinforced by the lack of representation of women in higher-up roles, so they’re not perceived as capable or accepted by themselves or others.
This trend is even more prevalent in women from working-class backgrounds. The majority of first-generation graduates struggle with the socially imposed extra mental and external barriers in the professional world, making them feel like they do not belong. This is a direct result of the entrenched system of discrimination and bias in the UK, disadvantaging all those who do not fit into the rigid stereotypes prescribed by society. When applied to social classes this is enforced from the get-go. For example, through types of schooling. Private school students are more encouraged to develop confidence and have greater aspirations. This is reflected in the fact that despite only 7% of the UK’s population being privately educated, the current cabinet and senior judges are dominated by privately educated people, approximately 2/3. Furthermore, working-class students at university are more likely to feel out of place and struggle with this impact on their mental health to the extent they drop out. The shame society associates with having little money forces people in the lower classes to feel like they’re pretending to be someone else in a professional work environment, resulting in anxiety. Discriminatory factors intersect for working-class women, resulting in this demographic being the most likely to experience imposter syndrome. The truth is, even today, the work environment is built for and suits men, so it is, unfortunately, entirely expected that women, especially working-class women, feel uncomfortable in this world.
It is important to recognise that this is a structural problem, not an individual problem as the name suggests. If there was a quick, easy, fix there would be no pay gap and well-established male contraception. We are not there yet. Unfortunately, it is still up to the individual to combat the effects of imposter syndrome within themselves and educate others if they can. But this is why organisations, such as Our Streets Now, are so important. We are working to reduce structural inequalities that manifest themselves in things such as imposter syndrome. So, in the meantime, educate yourself and others when you can and know that you belong in the fast lane and one day no one, including yourself, will question that.
Sources: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/16/impostor-syndrome-class-unfairness https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2021/10/10666602/imposter-syndrome-working-class-women https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/working-class-impostor-syndrome_uk_5d5e4708e4b0b59d256f8389 https://greatist.com/live/imposter-syndrome
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Madeline Trudgian (She/Her)
Politics and international relations student at the University of Nottingham, intersectional feminist and blog writer for Our Streets Now. Passionate about women's education globally as a powerful tool to dismantle the patriarchy.
Courtesy of @growing_designer on Instagram