When you feel like you have to be "the smartest in the class"

We talk to four women of different ages and backgrounds about a cross-cutting phenomenon: the impostor syndrome

6 min

BarcelonaClara spent six months with a stomach ache every time she had to talk to the media. Jenn didn't dare send her proposals to a Whatsapp group if they hadn't been validated by someone else. Anna Pacheco admits that she has often called in experts to do a story and they have often told her that they were not trained enough to give an opinion. And Anna López still feels that in the operating theatre she has to prove that she does much better than the others because she is a woman in a man's world. The so-called impostor syndrome - the tendency, more pronounced in women, to underestimate themselves and think that they are not sufficiently prepared for a job - manifests itself in many ways and is combated with more female references. We talked by videoconference with four women of different ages and fields: Anna López, head of the plastic surgery service at the Hospital de Bellvitge; Jenn Díaz, MP and writer; Clara Prats, researcher and professor at the UPC, and journalist Anna Pacheco.

We have all suffered it

Jenn Díaz, MP and writer, is the first to break the ice: "I think the impostor syndrome is transversal and we have all experienced it. In my case, not so much as a writer but as a member of parliament. This syndrome that we bring from home comes together with the fact that we come to a space of power that has been traditionally masculinized and, therefore, you feel like an invader of the space. I, despite the fact that I am a Member of Parliament, do not have access to certain spaces where decisions are made and this means that when I am allowed access, I think I have to be brilliant and the smartest in the class because, if not, I will not be invited back. My first tendency is always to observe and then act, but if I waste my time observing maybe I don't get a second chance. And maybe it's all in my head, but I think there is a base that is structural.

Clara Prats: I've only recently heard about the impostor syndrome. I consider myself a cautious person when it comes to giving my opinion in a meeting with a lot of people, speaking in public or saying certain phrases in a forceful way, but this caution that I associate with myself can also be explained, in part, by the impostor syndrome.

Anna Pacheco: But it is penalized when we act otherwise. When a woman explains arguments in a more severe way, she is accused of being angry and her arguments are invalidated because the forms are not appropriate. We have been educated socioculturally in a way of being that is anchored in patriarchy.

Anna Lopez: And you realise that this is something that we have lived with since childhood, that we have learnt since we were little: that women have to be more prudent and men more courageous.

Doesn't this happen to men?

A.P.: I am critical of the impostor syndrome because, as often happens with labels, the market makes it its own and ends up perverting it and it is very much associated with female leadership within the company. And I wonder if it is not reasonable and desirable for us to have doubts about ourselves. The problem is, perhaps, these men who never have impostor syndrome. Many times we have to give space to a person who is more prepared than us, and not just buy into this corporate discourse that we have to be like men and say yes to everything and think we are the best, because this is also very much associated with patriarchy. Humility and insecurity can also be revolutionary.

A.L.: We tend to strive for perfection and if it is not what you consider in your head to be perfect, you remain in the background. Medicine has changed a lot and there are a lot of women, but in surgery there are still a lot of men and even more in positions of command. And sometimes, when you are in the operating room, you have the feeling that you have to prove that you do it much better than the others because you are a woman in a world where there have always been men, and it is this feeling of perfection that appears, that if I don't achieve the best it is better to keep quiet. And it is a mistake, we lack this point of courage.

J.D.: The problem is not that it happens to us, but that it doesn't happen to them. The problem is not that we are prudent, but that they have not been prudent. Prudence should not be penalized, having doubts should not be penalized. In most meetings, almost all of us women start by saying: "Maybe this is silly, but..." We start by justifying ourselves before saying anything. For example, in preparation for the election debates I was invited to a group of mostly men and the first thing I did was to pass my ideas privately to the man who had invited me to the group and, once I had validation, I dared to send them to everyone. And my colleagues when they say something that seems stupid to me don't start by saying "maybe this is stupid".

C.P.: The problem is when this prudence turns into fear. I don't intend to stop being prudent, but it doesn't have to stop you from speaking in a group or from making mistakes. I had never spoken to the media before and you don't know the stomach aches I had until I stopped being afraid of being wrong: if I'm wrong, it's OK, tomorrow I'll clarify it.

J.D.: It also means normalising it. For many years people said: "I want to put women in talk shows, I want to put women in mayor's offices, but I can't find them". And seeing you, Clara, there, generates role models.

How to combat it

J.D.: By having feminist friends. The meetings and informal spaces with other feminist women who are role models in their fields have helped me. Discussing with them many things that made me doubt and being aware that what I was saying didn't only represent me. But it is not a guarantee of anything either. When I do something for the first time I go back to square one.

A.L.: I was lucky enough to participate in a women's leadership course organized by the ICS and it was very enriching, I realized that women have a different way of leading: more collaborative and by teamwork. When I started at the hospital I was the only woman in surgery and we had a very pyramidal and hierarchical service and it was difficult to develop expertise.

A.P.: Now, as we know that the impostor syndrome can be a market trap, I ask my friends: "Do I feel this way because of impostor syndrome, or is it too far-fetched?" And it's good that they say: "You are very well prepared to do it, it's your subject and you will do it great". And it has a lot to do with the rhythms of the market because you write a book and, suddenly, you have an overdimensioned attention and you can already give your opinion on everything, you are already a talk show host, and these are deeply patriarchal dynamics that are thought from the centrality of men.

C.P. How have I fought? By training myself, I have been acquiring security. When I am confident inside, I can be confident outside. I have an eminently masculine work environment and I would also like to highlight the role of my friends.

A moment of the conversation with Anna Pacheco, Anna López, Jenn Díaz and Clara Prats.

The role models

J.D. As many of us are newcomers, the way of exercising power and occupying it we have to make it up as we go along because you don't have a reference point. And women's leadership in politics will depend on the fact that some of us are comfortable doing things differently and assuming the additional cost that this will entail, and I think of the case of Anna Pacheco and Operación Triunfo.

C.P.: The students who are coming up now have it more integrated, I ask myself questions for external information and they already have it incorporated.

Is it accentuated by public visibility?

J.D.: The level of demands I had on myself when I was a writer was one and now that I am a Member of Parliament it is another. But it has less to do with me than with the position.

A.P.: It is accentuated. As your work becomes more visible, you have to think very carefully about what you say. But we are always being asked to do more. We are asked for a brilliance and excellence that is not asked of men. There is a meme that says: "I wish I could wake up every day with the self-confidence of a mediocre white man". We don't want to be mediocre, but we have the right to be, too. The scrutiny is on us. And it's a reflection that I make myself much more than a man, because the punishment will also be patriarchal. We saw it in Operación Triunfo. The attack was misogynistic. And, therefore, this makes you have a fear that comes from a deep misogyny. The demand is threefold, but the attack is doubly severe and has a macho character. And I would like to say that it didn't affect me, but a part of me doesn't want to go through all that again and puts up with things I would say.