It’s not easy going for a promotion if you’re "the kind of person who feels like someone’s going to tap you on the shoulder any moment and say 'C’mon now, you put on a good show, but joke’s over now, off you pop’."
Or so said Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, when asked if she might one day become Labour's first female leader. It sounded like a classic case of imposter syndrome – the secret nagging feeling that you shouldn't push your luck at work no matter how well things seem to be going, because you're probably not as good as everyone else seems to think – holding an outwardly confident woman back. But dig a bit deeper, and there's something more complicated going on here.
Imposter syndrome looks wildly irrational, but is in some ways totally understandable because it invariably strikes people who have traditionally been told that they're not as good as their rivals; women in male-dominated industries, say, or working class people in heavily middle-class professions, or, as in Rayner’s case, both. It doesn't just fall from a clear blue sky. It's not some weird quirk of female biology, given men get it too if they’re the sort of men who are repeatedly told their faces don’t fit. It's a learned insecurity, something that's been drummed into us.
Take the weekend’s fuss over a column in the Irish edition of The Sunday Times. Columnist Kevin Myers was sacked for suggesting, in a piece on the BBC pay gap, that one reason Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz were relatively well paid compared to other female broadcasters was that they’re both Jewish and “Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price, which is the most useful measure there is of inveterate, lost-with-all-hands stupidity.”
But while the paper quite rightly issued a grovelling apology within hours for the offence caused by such blatant anti-semitism, there was initially no mention of the offence caused by Myers’s broader and madly evidence-free argument that women broadcasters earn less than men because they’re not as good, don’t work so hard, and anyway men don't go off and get pregnant.
Added together, sexist rants provide the background noise to our working lives; a soothing lullaby for insecure men
Only as an afterthought did a spokesperson add something about comments unacceptable to “women in the workplace”. What's depressing is that up until that point, everyone at the paper who read and cleared it for publication presumably thought it was fine; bit provocative maybe, but harmless enough.
Yet petty as it looks in some ways compared to peddling damaging myths for which Jews have been persecuted down the ages, pub bore rants like this matter. In themselves, they're minor irritants at best, but added together they provide the background noise to our working lives; a soothing lullaby for insecure men, who badly want to be reassured that nobody else is going to overtake them, and a nagging mosquito whine in everyone else's ears, constantly suggesting we might not be good enough.
No wonder so many outwardly successful people end up believing that – as Angela Rayner, who left school at 16 with no qualifications, put it – they’re “punching above my gene pool” even to be where they are. Why push higher when they're frankly lucky to get this far?
But all that said, it would be a mistake to read Rayner’s remarks as another story of female insecurity crippling ambition. For a start, it's actually unusually confident for someone who has only been an MP for two years to answer a question on leadership with anything but the traditional coy insistence that there’s no vacancy or that the thought would never cross her mind. (For comparison, shadow justice minister Gloria de Piero – another working-class girl raised on benefits, who struggled initially to break into politics against the odds – responded bluntly at the weekend when asked if she could be leader that “Oh God, no. There are better.”)
Even more intriguingly, Rayner went on to say that despite the self-doubt she draws confidence from knowing she's speaking “for my class, for the people I'm there to represent”. What she's really saying, perhaps, is that she's ambitious all right but knows party leaders need to develop rhino hides in a world where any chink of weakness will be viciously exploited. That says less about her, or about any other individual woman or working-class kid made good, than it does about the broader climate in which they operate.
Time to talk a bit less about female insecurity, perhaps, and rather more about its causes and solutions. Only then do we have a chance of breaking free of it.