Imposter syndrome is actually the human condition

Imagine asking a room of five hundred women: “Raise your hand if you have experienced imposter syndrome.” I did this recently. A sea of hands went up, including my own. Because we’ve been schooled to believe that we are in the grip of this “syndrome” and that whenever we feel self-doubt, insecurity or questioning we should label it as such. It’s painful and feels nasty. So naturally we want a diagnosis. It makes sense if the patient has imposter syndrome.

My aim, however, was to demonstrate that this must be nonsense. I’m no doctor but it seems to me that if 90 per cent of people or more report that they are suffering from a condition, then it is very likely the disease known as the human condition. Next question: “Is there anyone here who has never felt imposter syndrome?” One brave woman raised her hand. You could feel the famous quote from When Harry Met Sally flash through the collective mind: “I’ll have what she’s having.” 

The point was made. We have labelled natural, reasonable self-doubt as “imposter syndrome” when it’s just part of a healthy professional life. But there’s something about sharing these insecurities that gives us — and women, in particular — a sense of community. And, perhaps more importantly, these self-blaming concepts also offer an explanation of sorts. Why do these statistics persist, like the one about more men called Dave or Steve than women becoming CEOs? Why, in the Conservative leadership election in the UK, is the demographic of Tory members eligible to vote 63 per cent male?

In many countries we are decades into universal suffrage, education and literacy and yet so much data illustrates our desperation to cling on to weird medieval gender attitudes that are reflected across society and, most markedly, wherever there is power, status and money. The attraction of putting this down to imposter syndrome reminds me of the Oprah Winfrey quote: “There is no discrimination against excellence.” That is the 1990s take. That if you’re feeling attacked and downtrodden, you’ve got no one but yourself to blame. Be more confident! Be more excellent! Stick it to the man!

But increasingly I hear women complaining privately that they are fed up of self-improving and of being told that they need to learn how to negotiate or how to change themselves to operate better in a given environment. There’s a sense that such self-development initiatives, often well-intentioned and successful, are almost a form of “trolling” women. There’s a backlash to imposter syndrome and all it represents and it can be summed up by the title of Laura Bates’ new book, Fix the System, Not the Women.

Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project, is a brilliant thinker and campaigner. In this book she looks in depth at changes that need to be made in education, politics, media, criminal justice and policing. It’s a solid case about the sort of baked-in institutional bias that is almost impossible to fight against as an individual. (For instance: the man who threw his ex-wife against a car and, after an assault conviction, was instructed to pay £150 compensation to his ex for her injuries and £810 to the owner of the dented BMW.)

The conclusions echo Caroline Criado-Perez’s research in Invisible Women where she lists the parts of life designed for “the average man”: crash-test dummies, driver controls on vehicles of all kinds, voice recognition systems. Even smartphones are designed with the male hand in mind. All small ways in which women are designed out of existence. No wonder that might make you feel like an imposter in the world you live in.

But blaming the system and expecting it to change without any of us changing anything about ourselves is naive. The fault lies neither exclusively with the system nor with the women: it lies with all of us. Because we are all part of the system. At the end of the event where I was speaking, the woman with zero imposter syndrome came up to me and apologised, which I thought was unnecessary but made me like her more. She didn’t mean to be arrogant. She simply doesn’t blame herself when things go wrong. She just asks why and thinks about what to do next. Yes, we need data and arguments that question the system and point out its flaws. But we also need individuals inside it who are focused on solutions rather than on themselves and their own perceived failings.

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