In the pub, surrounded by some of my most talented female friends, the conversation winds its way to the subject of work. There are seven of us sitting around the table and we realise, with horror, that none of us has ever asked for a pay rise.
One is agonising about whether she is “good enough” to apply for a job that, it seems to me, she could do with her eyes closed. Another is sick of watching colleague after (young, male) colleague being promoted above her.
But has she asked for a promotion herself? “No.” Why not? “What if they laugh?” she asks. “I guess I feel like they’ve probably got a much better grasp on the job than me, and I’m just… winging it.”
Welcome to the weird workings of a mind gripped by imposter syndrome. The phrase was first coined in the 1970s, when psychologists Pauline R Clance and Suzanne A Imes spotted the fact that professional women appeared to be disproportionately plagued by self-doubt.
They researched the phenomenon, writing a paper called The Imposter Phenomenon In High Achieving Women. Clance even came up with a scale to “diagnose” it.
Do you recognise these sentiments? “It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments.” “At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.” “I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.”
I’ll wager you do. After leaving the pub that night, I began reading through reams of research. In 2011, the Institute of Leadership & Management conducted a survey, asking managers how confident they felt in their professions. Half of the women reported self-doubt in their jobs. Less than a third of men did.
Research by Hewlett Packard suggests that women don’t apply unless we are certain we meet every single one of the “competencies” listed on a jobs ad. Men, on the other hand, will throw their hat into the ring if they can tick off just 60 per cent.
Even Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook, founder of Leanin.org, all-round Superwoman) says, “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”
Picture a lively book group – only, instead of books, we are discussing our own strengths and our strategies for becoming stronger still
And so, I decided to do something about it. I started an Imposter Syndrome Supper Club. It is nothing quite as grand or glorious as The Albright – Britain’s first private members' club for women that opened last week in central London. But you don’t need a five-storey townhouse (complete with cocktail bar, exhibition space and wellness bar) to begin tapping away at the glass ceiling.
Here, in my experience, is what you do need: one small group of women, somebody’s sitting room, a few dishes of good food, some music and a plentiful supply of wine.
Those are the ingredients that go into my supper club. We meet once a month, always in someone’s home. Everyone brings a dish to share. Sometimes there are three of us, sometimes 10. Sometimes it’s the same core group, sometimes everyone other than me is there for the first time.
If you are imagining an AA meeting, with members standing one by one, to make their sad confessions of insecurity, you’ve got it all wrong. Instead, picture a lively book group – only, instead of books, we are discussing our own strengths, and our strategies for becoming stronger still.
We do trade stories about the ways in which our imposter syndrome has raised its spiteful head in recent weeks. But we also swap tips for shaking off self-doubt – remember that everyone’s winging it, make lists of your achievements, stop aiming for perfect and reframe the blanks in your knowledge as learning opportunities.
“It’s sort of like a sorority, without the bitching,” says Emily. “I don’t know if I like finding out that so many of my insecurities are shared by the other women in the room, but it definitely makes me feel less of a lone loon.”
“Knowing that the other women are really talented, but still suffer from the same worries as me, makes me feel like maybe my worries are baseless, too,” says Anna.
Here’s where the doubters interject. Women are not alone in suffering from imposter syndrome, they claim. Recent studies have suggested that men have it too, just feel less able to talk about it.
To which I say: you are missing the point. Because, while men may be experiencing imposter syndrome, they are not – it seems – sliding over into the passenger seat and letting it drive their careers.
This year – for the first time – all British organisations with over 250 employees are being forced to reveal the difference between what they pay men and women. Of the companies that have reported so far, 74 per cent pay men more than women.
Of course, imposter syndrome is not the sole cause of all workplace inequalities. It may not even be the biggest villain. But in the current climate, doesn’t it seem more urgent to discuss and address its hold over women than men? Now, excuse me, I have a tagine to whip up and a soul-divas playlist to put together.