By Brooke Schultz
My mom has always called me a “know-it-all,” which I find funny because at least once a week I doubt 90 percent of my abilities.
Often, I feel like I’ve got everyone – my employers, my friends, Washington College in general – fooled, that I’m not really as capable as I appear. According to a quick Google search, I’m not alone; this doubt in my abilities has a fancy name and everything.
“Impostor syndrome” is defined by Caltech’s counseling center as a “feeling that you are not really a successful, competent, and smart student, that you are only imposing as such” and has been found to affect women disproportionately to men, according to a study, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women,” conducted by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.
Women, they write, “are more likely either to project the cause of success outward to an external cause (luck) or to a temporary internal quality (effort) that they do not equate with inherent ability.”
While I’ve always kind of felt underwhelmed about my own ability, I figured that at least it kept me on my toes: it makes me eager to work hard, to apply to more jobs, and to scrutinize my work before submitting it.
Within this past month, though, I have found that this doesn’t seem to affect men to the same level it does to women. This feels like a slight generalization, but I decided to look into it a bit out of curiosity. What separates men and women in the workplace isn’t just a pay gap, but also a confidence gap.
“Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology,” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote in their article, “The Confidence Gap,” about their book of the same title. Women, even if they are over-prepared for any position, are likely to hold back, whereas men, despite being underqualified, are more likely to apply.
Kay and Shipman also cite a study conducted by social psychologist Brenda Major where she would ask students to rate their ability at a number of tasks. The results consistently concluded that men overestimated their abilities and women underestimated their abilities, but the performances did not differ largely in quality.
This confidence gap seems to explain why some men feel the need to offer advice even when it is undesired. In the past month, I have had two men I work with, who are relatively unrelated to my job, tell me how to do my own job. It isn’t constructive criticism exactly; it bridges on something else.
Through the course of a meeting, I was told things like “writers do…,” “writers never…,” as if to undermine my status as a writer.
It was such a subtle way of making me question my abilities that only when I actually sat down and reflected on our conversation only then did it feel somewhat condescending and I begin to wonder if I was really as capable as I let on. Here was someone who didn’t work directly with writing like I do, in multiple jobs, and he felt that he had sufficient knowledge of writing to direct me down to things like dialogue tags and the use of adjectives. His observations were at odds with what I had learned, but I didn’t voice that concern because I wasn’t “sure.” That lack of confidence in my own knowledge stifled the chance for conversation and understanding on both of our parts.
For now, my self-diagnosed impostor syndrome is something to keep me motivated and makes me willing to accept criticism in any form. But being aware of it can be useful, too, so I don’t let it dictate how I regard my own abilities.