A few weeks ago, I attended an event at Newnham College, a part of Cambridge University specifically founded for women by women during a time when the idea of possessing a degree and a vagina simultaneously was deeply controversial. Speaking on the topic of gender divides in the workplace, psychologist Dr Linda Papadopolous said that “confidence is more important than competence” when it comes to getting a job.
She cited statistics which revealed that a man looking at a job spec will generally feel comfortable applying if he has 60 per cent of the desired qualifications, whereas a woman will, on average, only throw her CV into the ring if it contains 100 per cent. I thought of all the teacher conferences I’ve attended where 90 per cent of delegates have been women, then the headteacher events where that gender split has been reversed, and I concluded this stood to reason.
Research conducted by graduate recruitment site Milkround bears this out. It found that the salary expectations of female graduates are much lower than their male counterparts, with one third believing they will earn less than £20k as a starting salary and a quarter expecting to be earning £25-30k in five years’ time. Their male counterparts, conversely, expected to be earning between £35k-£40k.
Nearly half of the women surveyed cited a “lack of confidence” as the reason for their low expectations, which many used interchangeably with the term “imposter syndrome”.
I’m uncomfortable with the way “imposter syndrome” is used colloquially here, in the same way I dislike the phrase “a little bit OCD” when used to mean “likes things tidy”. Imposter syndrome is an all-pervading and distressing belief system, centred around feelings of inadequacy, of being a “fraud” and fears concerning “being found out”. Statistics show it does indeed disproportionately affect women.
However, if young women are emerging from education and into the job market with very different ideas about their value than young men, this suggests the issue is a systemic one, rather than being a matter of confidence levels in individuals. I am joined in this belief by Afua Hirsch, author of the best-selling (and rather brilliant) Brit(ish), who told me: “The problem is that we are all conditioned by social norms which define and portray power as man-shaped, middle-aged, elite and white. This is the blueprint by which we all measure ourselves and to the extent we deviate from that norm, we inevitably feel self-conscious about our non-conformity."
Young women 'cautious about applying for jobs'
The age consideration Hirsch mentions might explain why Milkround’s research that found just under a quarter of young men shared women’s salary expectations on entering the job market, but the expectations of each sex begin to diverge significantly as they imagined growing older.
Schools, of course, have a role to play in combating this. They can help to ensure that the “shape of power”, as defined by Hirsch, is as fluid as possible by making the range of figures, historical and present, who are studied and celebrated within its walls diverse. Adults need also to keep our inherent gender bias in check when dealing with children. Girls tend to be socialised from a young age to believe that the best thing they can be is “good” and therefore “liked”. Is it any wonder, then, that, as adults, women often fear demanding their worth and settle for substandard pay and conditions, for fear of upsetting the proverbial apple cart?
I remember some of my primary teachers advising me to “just let it go” when something I considered deeply unfair had happened to me because “you know you’re right and that’s what matters”. I found this, even at the tender age of 8, thoroughly frustrating. Sometimes, it’s more important to be right than liked – sometimes happiness comes from sticking to your principles as opposed to pursuing an “easy life”, and I wish someone had, if not advised me that was the route to take, at least supported me when I did (because I was always going to. I always do).
Of course, the responsibility for fixing this shouldn’t be another thing to land in the laps of schools. This is a whole-society issue requiring a response which incorporates every aspect of our culture. In her recent column for Grazia magazine on the gender pay gap, Cosmopolitan editor Farrah Storr asserted that “those who had studied the issue” know “a really feminist question” would be why women aren’t properly remunerated for their more “natural” skills which, she claimed, include caring and nurturing.
Whilst the idea that women are “naturally” predisposed to certain tasks obviously caused me to hurl my copy of my favourite women’s glossy at the wall, Storr has a point on which characteristics society, and more specifically employers, value. Even their given-name –“soft skills” – implies that the ability to deal with people is somehow “less” than the ability to navigate a spreadsheet. Teaching, which is at least 70 per cent understanding and catering to the 30-plus sets of individual needs in a classroom, is systematically undervalued and underpaid for that very reason.
In short, it may just be that when girls come out of education having seen their (predominantly female) teachers having been properly respected and remunerated, that their problems with imposter syndrome will at last disappear.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here