“I have bluffed and blushed my way through life”: politician Sophie Walker on overcoming Imposter Syndrome

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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, leader of the Women's Equality Party, Sophie Walker, opens up about her Imposter Syndrome and argues that the interlinked pressure on women to be "strong" and "resilient" serves only to suffocate our potential in all areas of life. 

Feminist Sophie Walker says:

I was invited recently to speak at an event on the grounds that I was a "strong woman." The organiser explained this would attract people and sell tickets. I said I’d be really happy to do the event, but asked her not to describe me so. Partly because I’m not. But mainly because giving top billing to "strong" women does none of us any favours.

"Strong woman." Was there ever anything so stifling?

It’s the 21st century version of a rule that has bound us for generations: we may contribute only if we qualify.

In a grimly humorous twist, this latest variant is presented to us as positive: movie makers, politicians and industry leaders assure us that we can indeed have women in our media, democratic institutions and businesses, just so long as they are "strong" - a male definition of which continues to limit our representation to a small and predominantly white, middle-class, able-bodied minority.

It is no surprise that along with the growth in the "Strong Woman" we have also seen a boom in "Imposter Syndrome", the inadequacy that grips so many women. In fact, the conventional understanding that women lack the skills to get ahead is now so well-established that a marketplace has sprung up to profit from our predicament.

At a recent conference I learned you can now have "resilience training" to better bear up beneath the difficulty of being a woman. It was the most depressing piece of corporate development news I’d heard since the advent of the skills course teaching women who don’t get the pay rise they deserve to "ask better".

For centuries women have absorbed powerful messages that the inequalities we face are ours to remove.

Those responsible for the discrimination we face from school to workplace via maternity bed (or not), tell us that all we have to do to fix centuries of legislative, societal and economic repression is be assertive.

If we can behave more like men it will all go away. (The clue to how seriously we will be taken should we "man up" is in the description of our bravery. We nearly always get called something else, often "feisty" - a word used mainly by men about women and animals. It means: "Look, we found a little gutsy one!" See also: "tough cookie".)

For centuries women have absorbed powerful messages that the inequalities we face are ours to remove.

My generation grew up to see several women who did succeed, do so by behaving like men. With optional sexiness. Think Melanie Griffiths in Working Girl.

This has done much damage. Not least because male business leaders now think that we divide neatly into types - the bolshy ones in aggressive trouser suits who are just as good as men (apart from when they hit their time of the month) and the "soft skills" set who do HR and dispense hugs at the end of difficult meetings.

This is another reason we don’t have enough women on boards; too many companies think one of each type adequately reflects the diversity of women’s talents.

At this point I must say that I too have bluffed and blushed my way through life. I am well acquainted with Imposter Syndrome.

As a child, I was too tall, too serious, too plain. At school I practised surviving, not thriving. I worked hard to get away from the bullies, to mixed results: lots of As but no place at Oxford, from which I was rejected along with the only other woman to apply to the same course at the same college as I.

I too have bluffed and blushed my way through life. I am well acquainted with Imposter Syndrome.

After university I wanted to be a reporter. I got a temporary contract at a news agency among many men whose wives and children followed them on international assignments. When I was taken on as a full-time member of staff, the boss asked to see me. I walked into his office - quaking - and he told me he was interested in meeting people who “got in by the back door.”

I worked as a journalist for nearly twenty years. I felt like an outsider all the time. I reported on stock markets and the economy, interviewing (male) traders and bankers and finance ministers, then going home to read books called How The Stock Market Works. I wrote about oil and trade from Washington - I’ll leave you to guess the names of the books I read in those years. Then I reported from Iraq and to Afghanistan. There’s a photograph of me in a Black Hawk helicopter. I thought I looked like a steely war correspondent. I was grinning so hard with nerves that I looked more like Bridget Jones.

I learned to live with the fear when I had to stand up for someone else who was frightened.

When my daughter was diagnosed with autism I had to support her claim to understanding and acceptance. I had to educate myself about a diagnosis that overwhelmed and confused us. I had to put my argument to people who intimidated us. I had to keep faith in an idea that when we embrace difference, we are all better off.

Turns out, that comes in handy for politics too.

To believe our worth is exceptionally tough when, as women, we have been told from birth that we may only participate according to someone else’s rules - that come with a whole extra subset if we are disabled, black, gay or poor.

Recently a friend told me about a group of young professionals she was training. “The boys are so confident and the girls are so in awe of their confidence,” she told me sadly. “One of the girls said to me: ‘How do they do it? I wish I’d been born like that.’ I wanted to tell her: ‘You were. You just had it taken away from you.’”

Confidence comes from knowing what is right and true to you - and for me that’s calling bullshit the idea that everything is mine if only I can train myself to be different.

I don’t want to learn to be brave.

I want to live in an environment where I and my daughters and my sisters can flourish as we are. I joined, built and lead the Women’s Equality Party to create that kind of environment. You are all welcome. No weight-lifting required.

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.