Don’t look down, women suffering imposter syndrome are told
Political leaders have long been subject to society’s obsession with female self-doubt
Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, arrives for the European Union (EU) summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg
As Theresa May, sober and serious, prepared to take over from the culpably casual David Cameron as the UK’s second-only female prime minister in 2016, there was fellow feeling - and trepidation - among women in Westminster. Watching her fail has been painful - for the cameras to dwell on those final tears seemed too gleeful a revenge on a woman often criticised for being robotic, unable to exhibit signs of vulnerability before that moment of defeat.
Boy, did she mess up. But the task of delivering Brexit while keeping the country and the party together looked like a textbook “glass cliff” - an impossible situation presented to a woman to handle, while the men sensibly steer clear.
Scotland, meanwhile, already had a woman at the helm. As she took office in 2014, first minister Nicola Sturgeon hoped - with specific reference to her niece, who was watching from the gallery in Holyrood - that she would send “a strong, positive message to all girls and young women across our land: there should be no limit to your ambition”. She went on: “If you are good enough and you work hard enough, the sky is the limit.”
But earlier this month (as it turned out, only days before Mrs May’s defenestration), Ms Sturgeon was frank in a radio interview about her fear of falling from these great heights. She admitted to experiencing so-called “imposter syndrome” - anxiety about being exposed as a fraud.
“Every time I stand up in parliament or do a television interview or television debate, I feel vulnerable, because just in the blink of an eye I could just crash and burn.”
Other high-profile women have discussed this phenomenon of career vertigo - former US first lady Michelle Obama and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg are two examples.
“Don’t look down,” is the standard advice. I overheard this same counsel offered, in a supportive but amused tone, by a male to a female friend last week as she explained an unexpected promotion (a boss had walked out, leaving her in charge).
It’s a temptingly simple instruction: do not admit the possibility of failure and there will be no humiliating nosedive. Sometimes it’s salutary. As a male colleague scolded my younger self: “Don’t be such a girl: of course you can do it.”
Women don’t always give such advice to each other - we are, perhaps, more aware of how easy it would be to slip, fall and not be granted a second chance. So Ms Sturgeon’s decision to publicly “look down” while still in government, rather than on a performative book tour or chat show, caused sharp intakes of breath.
“She’s running a country and even she feels it?” said one colleague, incredulously. An incensed friend demanded to know why this question was only ever put to women leaders. Has anyone, she wanted to know, ever asked male politicians brimming with overconfidence, like Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson, if they suffer from this supposed psychological affliction?
A new BBC2 documentary series about Britain’s first female prime minister, , is revelatory in this regard. Footage dating from the years before the young Margaret became Conservative leader and prime minister demonstrates, in antiquated accent and language, a similar obsession with probing a female’s levels of self-doubt.
Complimented on her bravery at speaking in the House of Commons, Thatcher offers: “I’m normally as frightened as a kitten, it’s just that somehow you manage to control it.”
Control it she did - in the same programme she talks about donning “a sort of armour” to cope with the rigours of politics. Still, after more than a decade in power, and having built a reputation as the Iron Lady, Thatcher was also pictured reduced to tears by her plummet from power in 1990. The nickname was as useful to her as being dubbed a “bloody difficult woman” was to Mrs May.
You can hear Ms Sturgeon in that interview trying to outline a path through these two extremes - excessive assertiveness cultivated to demonstrate strength versus an involuntary emotional undoing. Some will see weakness in her admission, or even her “letting the side down”. But it’s probably a conversation that a lot of men would like to have too.
Miranda Green is an Financial Times columist