It's hard being a mother with another job. You're judged at work as though you are less committed, more distracted, and less focussed. You're judged by society as a mother as less committed, selfish even. Working fathers have been the status quo for so long, and they are assumed to be good at both. Women are assumed to be good at neither.
When people have expectations like that, they bleed into your expectations for yourself, like a poison. Imposter Syndrome can often be the result. If you do either role well, either mother or worker, you may have a tendency to attribute your success to external factors (I'm so lucky to have a supportive husband and family; my team really helped me). And if you fail, you'll likely blame yourself (I'm not working hard enough; I'm not good enough). This inability to internalise success, the inability to say, "I'm a great mother because of who I am" is Imposter Syndrome in a nutshell. But where does it come from? Why do women blame themselves for failure? To answer that, let me take you on my own journey.
With so many conflicting priorities is it any wonder we sometimes feel we don't do anything well?
While I was at uni studying psychology, I specialised in the effect of attitudes and beliefs on peoples’ ability to make judgements on the quality of scientific evidence. Later, I studied part-time, for a Masters in Strategic Information Systems. My thesis was on the experiences of female project managers in a male-dominated field. Since I graduated I've been working in the male-dominated field of IT, and specifically IT in banking.
I've always been very interested in, and inclined to be inquisitive about, the experiences that women have in the workplace. It's fascinating how other people’s attitudes and beliefs about women affect their perceptions of their performance, and subsequently how this impacts how women perceive and present themselves. Although I think about it in terms of the workplace, this issue can affect us across our lives.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: this book asks women to change. Is this really the solution, or by suggesting that women's behaviour is the issue, is it just another symptom of the problem?
Imposter Syndrome is very personal for me. I’ve only just realised that for many years, when I introduced my academic background I would always say…”working in IT, I realised I didn’t have a formal qualification in that field, so I decide to study it for my Masters”. Now, while that might be true (it is), the fact that I feel the need to repeat it in conversation, events like this, even in interviews, is not helpful. How many of my senior colleagues don’t have qualifications in IT? Most of them. They don’t even mention it. So, I was managing to turn a positive into a negative because I was airing my own insecurities. Is that a surprise though? In an article for The Guardian newspaper, Belinda Parmer, founder of LadyGeek, told women who want to work in technology not to bother with arts degrees. She may mean well, but for many women that’s just going to exacerbate their feelings of being an imposter.
Imposter Syndrome is an overarching term that describes a varied collection of effects. Some of them, as you would expect, are internal ones that women themselves experience. But some, are simply caused by external perceptions and attitudes that are outwith our control.
Here are some examples of why we might feel that we aren't good enough - these are studies which found women are perceived differently to men:
Harriman (1996): men persistently perceived female managers as being less knowledgeable and possessing poorer management skills than male managers (regardless of actual performance).
Dobbins, Cardy and Truxillo (1988): when women were rated, their performance was rated less accurately by raters with stereotyped views of women than by those with non-stereotyped views of women.
Deaux and Emswiller (1974) found that when asked to perform a task that was perceived to be male-oriented, men tended to have their success attributed by those rating it as due to skill, while the raters tended to rate women’s success as due to luck. On a female-oriented task the reverse effect was not found – both males and females were assumed to be skilled.
Karakowsky, McBey and Chung (2004): in tasks that were male-oriented, regardless of actual performance, women and men downgraded their perceptions of the women’s performance.
Some of you will also be familiar with the stereotype that women are poorer at tasks like spatial orientation and maths. However, these effects are able to be manipulated. If women are told that their gender is poorer at parallel parking then they perform less well in a test of parking than the group that were told that the “parallel parking myth” was exactly that, a myth.
Why might this be the case? How can we overcome this?
Well, first it could simply be performance degradation in your brain. Your brain is finite. When you undertake a task that you’ve been told you’re supposed to be bad at, then your brain is doing two things:
1. Coping with suppressing negative emotions and anxiety.
2. Doing the actual task.
People who think they are good at something are simply doing the one thing – the actual task.
In this example, it’s like the women have got a whole load of programmes running, and they’re taking up processor power. The men – they don’t have all those background tasks running. All of their processing capability is firmly pointed at maths, or parking, or being a working father, or whatever it is that society has decided men are better at than women.
That’s why I’m quite suspicious of “special development programmes” for women that seek to provide behavioural training. They perpetuate the myth that the issue is with the women. It’s not. If you want more evidence of how firmly our gender roles are created by society, not pre-defined by nature, then I would recommend Cordelia Fine’s book, “Delusions of Gender”.
Does that mean that women shouldn’t come together to support each other? Does that mean that I don’t agree with women-only shortlists?
No, but it does mean that we all need to be careful not to fall into the trap of blaming our gender for our inability to do mental arithmetic, when really we should be blaming the conditioning society has put upon us.
I think networks and programmes that support women are really useful for shedding light on those subliminal processes happen whether we talk or not. In talking about it, we bring it into the open. We create and share coping strategies. We debunk the myth that one sex is better or worse at things than the other.
Here are some of my coping strategies:
I never let a gender stereotype lie. Letting them pass perpetuates the established conventions. And don’t imagine these all come from men, many women feel quite at home in the niche carved for them, and are quite threatened by a move from the status quo. If one comes up, I actively find a way to find the opposite, or to share one of the research articles I have mentioned. With a husband who’s a stay-at-home Dad, and two daughters who have scorn for gender roles, it’s never too hard.
Repeat a positive mantra.
Visualise sucess, not failure.
I hope this have given you a useful introduction to Imposter Syndrome, and how it might affect you without you even noticing. Please share thoughts in the comments.