I teach, therefore I am.
In the run up to this event it has been interesting to see how many speakers have expressed a nervousness about the prospect of presenting today. Much of this has centred around the idea that in comparison to others they are not a big name and therefore might not have anything worth contributing. I’ve seen this happen at many a conference including those that I’ve organised; it’s a concern that I’ve had too, the assumption that you have something to say that is worth listening to seems unnatural. Reflecting on these anxieties it is clear there is a noticeable pattern: they are predominantly expressed by women. Of course there are complex reasons that this could be – perhaps there is more acceptance of women expressing their feelings or perhaps as a woman I have been more aware of or more exposed to the concerns of other women. However the frequency with which women identify with this suggests to me that this idea of fraudulence – now known as Impostor Syndrome – is a particular problem for women and I’m not the only one to think it.
Having always been fairly anxious, I assumed that my nervousness about speaking out, my lack of confidence when it came to applying for jobs, my need to downplay my achievements and the feeling that I was somehow going to be found out were just features of my personality. So it was somewhat of a revelation when I first read Sheryl Sandberg’s fantastic book ‘Lean In’ and came across the idea of imposter syndrome; something that she first recognised after listening to a speech by Dr Peggy McIntosh who had completed research on the subject.
‘She [Peggy McIntosh] explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are – impostors with limited skills or abilities.’ Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg goes onto describe her own struggle with feeling like an impostor and the limitations this can place on women – noticeably the need to explain away successes and to demonstrate uncertainty when giving opinions or not to contribute at all. It is the moments when our language choices indicate our inner thought: I’m in this job because “I got lucky”. “I’m not qualified to” apply for this job/make a comment/tackle this argument. “Sorry, I might be wrong but” this is my opinion for what it’s worth. What a good job we do in undermining our own brilliance. So how have we come to this position? How did we get to the point when successful women in a range of fields just don’t feel good enough?
As an English teacher, I find my answers in literature. Let’s start with Mary Wollstonecraft and her famous philosophical treatise ‘The Vindication of the Rights of Women’. In this work she tackles Rousseau and his ideas about women and their education:
‘Rousseau declares that a woman should never, for a moment, feel herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chooses to relax himself.’ The Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft
Wollstonecraft’s response? ‘What nonsense!’ She goes onto argue her ideas with great flair demanding an equality of education for women and challenging men to take up the gauntlet by letting women try to prove themselves. But it’s this line ‘What nonsense!’ that I find myself drawn to because of its absolute clarity in arguing against the idea that we ‘should be governed by fear to exercise [our] natural cunning’. It’s this fear which seems to be a symptom of ‘Impostor Syndrome’ and the feeling that society is determining how much of a contribution and what type of a contribution we should feel worthy of making. And this was written in 1792. Two hundred and twenty three years ago.
So surely the picture must have changed. Well we now have women in leadership roles, women who are brave enough to be heard. Now that’s look at these responses to women in power:
The Spectator: ’Do Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall look like leaders?’
The Sun: Nicola Sturgeon
Glamour Magazine: Comedian Amy Schumer on being accused of sleeping her way to success
Let’s just read the opening lines of Charles Moore’s article:
‘A hidden reason for Mrs Thatcher’s victory in 1975 was that lots of older Tory backbenchers fancied her. She was 49 and made the best of it without obvious strain. She was not disturbingly sexy, and she behaved with absolute propriety throughout, thus preventing any filthy old wretch from taking liberties, but she appealed to the chivalrous instincts of the knights of the shires.’ (http://blogs.new.spectator.co.uk/2015/08/have-yvette-cooper-and-liz-kendall-got-the-looks-for-a-leadership-contest/)
I imagine Charles Moore and Jean-Jaques Rousseau might get on.
And this is 2015. Two hundred and twenty three years since Wollstonecraft dismissed the idea that women should be silenced and should be judged on how alluring they were as ‘nonsense’. Is it wonder we feel like frauds when those of us who make it to leadership are told that we can’t possibly have made it on merit, it has to be about the way we look.
To literature again and another brave woman: in 1846 Anne Bronte, forced to write under a male pseudonym, challenged the assumptions that women writers were frauds:
“I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be” – Anne Brontë, Author’s Preface, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
So why is it that we still have a world of literature dominated by men? In 2011 The Guardian published a report (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/04/research-male-writers-dominate-books-world) on this that looked specifically at literary magazines with magazines such as the LRB having 74% of reviews published about men and 78% written by men. Guardian Books Editor Claire Armitstead identified the problem as the fact that men were much more likely to put themselves forward to review books, whilst women have to be hunted out. She comments: “My own feeling is that there is a lack of confidence among woman writers.”
Here we have the rub. Feeling like a fraud means sometimes we don’t nominate ourselves for jobs, we don’t apply for leadership roles, we don’t put our hand up and ask the questions we want and thus we don’t allow ourselves to be heard. It’s a vicious circle – there’s a lack of confidence which leads to women not being heard or not aiming to take on leadership roles, which in turn creates a world where women’s voices are in the minority, so we lack role models and we therefore again create a gendered notion of confidence – an issue which Laura McInerny recently identified in a Tweet when she said: ‘I do wonder if we (including me) keep writing stories that say girls don’t have enough confidence well create a self-fulfilling prophecy.’
The problem further being that any anxiety experienced by us as a society creates what the philosopher Eric Fromm described as a yearning to return to the comforting certainties of the primary ties – a yearning for “the escape from freedom”. The rise of totalitarian regimes for instance has a link to the social and economic anxiety of a society. So every tension point in society drives us unconsciously to yearn for leaders who fulfil our historical understanding of what a leader is. It’s why I think we have a predominately white male privately educated government and why even the Labour electorate chose to vote for white, male leadership. It’s an unconscious anxiety that makes us crave the comfort of the status quo.
So how do we change?
When you look at it like this it can seem pretty bleak and futile. Sometimes I want to give up but then I feel the anger about the fact that we are still fighting this battle. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her powerful TED talk said:
I am both angry and hopeful. After the Labour election, I found myself listening to the Barbara Streisand and Donna Summer song ‘Enough is Enough’ and it channeled my anger on these issues. I agree that this is a chicken and egg situation – as Sandberg notes – we need to change society but we also need to stop internalising the negative voice. I think part of me will always feel like an impostor but I have decided that actually it’s my duty to keep speaking out anyway. It makes it actually easier to take the focus away from myself – every time I feel unqualified for a job, or worried about taking a leadership step too early, or uneasy about asking a question, I remind myself that I’m not doing it just for me individually I’m doing it as part of a group, I’m doing it as a woman for my sisterhood. So I’ll speak out about my fears, I’ll accept the feeling that I’m going to be found out but I’ll just damn well do it anyway. It is my moral responsibility. Two hundred and twenty three years since Mary Wollstonecraft said that dismissing women was ‘nonsense’. Two hundred and twenty three years of society making us feel not good enough to make equality a reality. Enough is enough.