Written by: Elin Westerling
Edited by: Khushi Karnawat
Upon the writer’s block of applying for my first post-college positions, a friend suggested I’d ask myself: what would the male version of me do? It was my final semester of undergrad, and I was, in addition to trying to find a qualified internship, writing a thesis; two things I’d never done before, dawning on me as a testimony to everything I had accomplished so far. Certainly aware such unreachable expectations would have me inevitably fail, nonetheless convinced failure would prove me unworthy of the career within international politics I was pursuing; I set myself up for peak performance anxiety. Perhaps a male level of confidence was needed for me to overcome.
The conviction that the two endeavours of that fall semester somehow would define me as a person was echoed among several of my friends. It was in many ways symptomatic of us belonging to a late millennial generation that had been cradled into believing we could, and therefore should, do whatever we were passionate about (here’s an excellent essay on millennial burnout by Anne Helen Petersen). But it seemed the stress affected the women in particular ways, being more doubtful of our own abilities though fully aware of being no less competent than our male counterparts.
Increasing attention has been given to how our perception of success and failure is highly gendered ever since imposter syndrome was coined in 1978. The term was first mentioned in a study investigating how women, as a result of socialization and stereotyping, more frequently than men felt chronically insufficient in professional situations. Ample studies have since confirmed the notion of a “confidence gap”: the gendered disparity in self-assurance, by which men lean towards overestimating their abilities and performances, while women frequently underestimate themselves. It is no secret the job market rewards the former behaviour: (white) men are greatly overrepresented in senior and middle management positions worldwide, hold over two-thirds of ministerial positions and earn on average 12.5% more than women across OECD countries. A recent study at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, found the confidence to be a significant factor behind the gender pay gap, demonstrating how “confidence somehow has become a proxy for competence as a basis for success.”
Informed by such statistics, women, like myself, have been urged to be more confident. I embraced it out of sheer frustration. If the reason I was being held back was the tendency to assume the loudest voice also was the one with the answers, I wouldn’t hesitate to raise my own. As if the unequal access to the labour market would be an issue of personal qualities when it is one of privilege. I want to stress that the phenomenon of male (over)confidence is not necessarily a conscious strategy (why some, rather apologetically, call it “honest overconfidence.”) Neither does it negate that men too experience low self-esteem or feel like impostors. It might not be entirely implausible they suffer more but talk about it less. But so long as this certain kind of behaviour performed by this particular group continues to be rewarded, diversification of the public sphere will come on slowly.
Just as white men are overrepresented across most influential job sectors, impostor syndrome disproportionately affects those who are not: women, people of colour; particularly women of colour (e.g. Nance-Nash 2020). Insofar as imposter syndrome denotes an inaccurate negative assessment of one’s ability, building self-esteem is central to overcome. But it is structurally founded in a system where we are not equally judged for our performances. Everyone may experience self-doubt, but it is a significantly different experience if the little voice in your head is echoed by underrepresentation and stereotyping propagated in politics as much as popular culture. In the words of a software engineer and writer Alicia Liu “reducing imposter syndrome down to a lack of confidence makes it a personal deficiency without need to address the harmful environments that foster its occurrence.” When the confidence gap is framed as the key factor behind imposter syndrome, the focus is diverted from the structural to the personal. Feeling like an imposter becomes an individual fault, remedied by getting over and aligning ourselves with the norm that is overconfidence.
Liu writes as an Asian-American woman in a significantly more male-dominated field than mine: within international relations (development sector, to be specific), particularly at entry-level, there is no shortage of white women like myself. So while underrepresentation was not the issue, self-doubt and fear of failure made me question my belonging. To get a foot in, I’d have to resort to the age-old mantra of “fake it till you make it”. But as Lui aptly points out, does it really help to “fake it” if the issue fundamentally is about feeling like a fraud?
Note first that it is often found that when women adopt an overconfident behaviour, they are perceived negatively by their peers since it defies gendered expectations of femininity. But even if we could succeed by “catching up” to the male overconfidence, why do we hold it as the ideal? Praising overconfidence comes from perceiving feelings of doubt as a weakness - when it is, in fact nothing less than an intelligent reaction to being put in a new situation. At an early stage of a career, particularly within a high-performance field, you are right to be doubting yourself.
Instead, we overwork ourselves trying to convincingly fake the overconfidence we lack. Stress levels are consistently reported higher among women, and many studies show that younger generations are particularly affected. Sometime during my last semester of undergrad, I realised I was on the path to burnout and ended up postponing my internship plans. Instead, I decided to slow down my pace, staying on campus for another few months. Would male me have done the same, seeing as he would have been less likely to experience such stress and self-doubt? No matter the relevance of such a question, I have, to be sure, benefitted from sometimes asking myself how male me would have written applications or answered questions in class. Mostly because it has ensured me that competence and confidence are not always the same things and that the real challenge is to actually learn how to not only value my own abilities but also recognise my limitations. To know that self-doubt does not make you an impostor but is something everyone experiences whether they express it or not. Which is what I’ve found to be the most potent antidote to impostor feelings: knowing most people are experiencing the same thing. Confidence gap as a phenomenon will not be defeated until the fall of the patriarchy breaks down the structures keeping labour market sectors homogenous and unequal. But I do think embracing doubt and becoming transparent about our limitations has a part in this, too.