Do I Have Imposter Syndrome Or Am I Just A Working Class Woman?

Photographed by Lissyelle Laricchia.
Three years ago, I landed my first professional job as a marketing copywriter. It was far from a dream job but it was in the creative industry and had all the markers of what I considered a real, adult job: a decent annual salary, benefits, a commutable office.

That might sound mundane but it was a huge jump from my previous job at a supermarket, packing bags and herding customers as they fought over reduced biscuits. On the side, I had worked as many ad hoc copywriting shifts at magazines as I could possibly fit in and completed a journalism course with a scholarship. Finally, I could put my skills and shiny new degree to use.

When I got the call to tell me that I’d been chosen for the copywriting role, I cried. At the time I was illegally subletting a room in a shared house. My bedroom was run-down and all I wanted was to earn enough to live somewhere decent. Landlords can discriminate against people on low incomes and if, like me, you don’t have parents who earn enough to be your guarantor, finding a landlord who will give you a nice home can be far from straightforward. 
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My new job meant that everything was about to change for me. I was excited but soon fear crept in. I frequently woke up in the night, plagued by the fear that my new employers would call me and tell me they’d got the wrong person, that I was never meant to be offered the job. I convinced myself I knew nothing about copywriting and practised apologies for exaggerating my capabilities during the three interview stages.

This only worsened after my first day. The team was friendly; nobody revoked my job offer or exposed me as a liar (phew!) but I couldn’t submit work without my stomach burning from nausea. I started googling, desperate for advice. Thanks to several life coaches who had written countless articles about what I was feeling, I soon believed I was suffering with so-called imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome was introduced in 1978 in "The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Dr Pauline R. Clance and Dr Suzanne A. Imes. It’s loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud at work. This original research found that the 'condition' only affects women.

Studies have found that students from working class backgrounds often feel out of place in higher education and are likely to struggle with their mental health.

Today, imposter syndrome is a buzzword. It is an invented pathology, and one we’re all too familiar with at that. It has been monetised by some who have built careers in life coaching, motivational speaking and career guidance which offer advice and solutions. You can even buy 'funny' imposter syndrome T-shirts.

Most of the advice offered for combating imposter syndrome is the same. It encourages women to look within, reinforcing the idea that we are at once the problem and the solution. Take this article, for example, which argues that you can fight against imposter syndrome by "owning your greatness", "articulating your strengths" and "making time for self-care".
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Imposter syndrome is, seemingly, everywhere. According to a 2020 study, up to 82% of people experience it at some point in their career, with some experiencing feelings of anxiety, inadequacy and worries that their job will be taken away from them. But all is not quite as it seems. Labelling the symptoms of this supposed condition does nothing to address its causes. 
For a long time, I thought I was basically the poster child for imposter syndrome. It felt like the most reasonable explanation for my sleepless Sunday nights filled with dread and the anxiety-riddled Monday mornings that followed. Yet as I grew into my fancy new marketing role, I realised that there was more going on. 
I started to feel more confident in my abilities but I realised how out of place I felt around my colleagues who drove Range Rovers and went on regular skiing trips. 
Slowly it dawned on me that my class and background were a factor. I grew up in a single-parent, low-income household. When I was a kid, my mum worked in a clothes shop, as a cleaner and in a supermarket at different points. There were neither four-by-four cars nor ski holidays.
I am not the first working-class person to feel lost in a professional middle-class workplace, nor will I be the last. Studies have found that students from working-class backgrounds – particularly if they are the first person in their family to attend university – often feel out of place in higher education and are likely to struggle with their mental health.
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The causes of imposter syndrome, it turns out, are hardly located in individuals. Rather, it is a symptom of the internalised shame, stigma, anxiety and prejudice that a person has been subjected to, resulting in them feeling inferior because they have been made to feel so.
Twenty-five-year-old Molly is also from a working-class background and works as a senior creative for a car dealership.

"Sometimes it’s just so overwhelming being around posh people and having nothing to relate to them with," she tells me. "The worst part is they don’t know.

"You just have to endure awkward conversations where colleagues assume you have these rich experiences like travelling or going to red brick universities," she continues.

Samantha, 29, feels similarly after recently starting work on communications for a charity. "Yesterday I fully broke down crying because I feel so out of place and don’t know how to make friends with my colleagues," she says. "I feel like I have never had worse imposter syndrome."

Samantha tells me that she’s felt pressure to completely conceal her class background. "It's really odd working in a space where everyone's lived experience is so vastly different from your own," she explains. "It makes me aware of what I say or do, like I'm going to slip up and reveal that I’m secretly ‘rough’ or something." 
When Samantha breaks down her feelings, she hits on something that really resonates with me: that the shame and stigma which comes with not having money or being from an affluent background is what eats us up. "I don't necessarily think people would treat me unequally because of class or background," she reflects, "but there's still a feeling that creeps in that tells you that you don't belong."
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The intersection of class and gender with feelings of uneasiness or inadequacy at work needs to be discussed more openly. Imposter syndrome may be a useful shorthand for what is in reality a complex experience and, more than that, some of the advice it has generated may even be helpful. But when we don’t unpack this phenomenon and address its structural context, we do everyone – particularly those worst impacted – a disservice. 

Do you have imposter syndrome or are you exhausted? Do you have imposter syndrome or are you just battling sexism and classism in the workplace?

In her study "Belonging and Wanting: Meanings of Social Class Background for Women's Constructions of their College Experiences", Joan Ostrove notes that working-class women are more likely than anyone else to experience imposter syndrome. Crucially, she found that this is partly due to the harassment and abuse they had endured at work.
Yuwei Lin, a digital technologies expert who both struggles with and studies imposter syndrome, believes the gender pay gap sustains institutional inequality, which inevitably leads to more women experiencing the feelings which are now lumped under the umbrella of imposter syndrome. Research suggests that this can create a self-reinforcing cycle. In 2019 the "Imposter Syndrome Research Study" showed that 31% of women with imposter syndrome would not ask for a pay rise even if they believe they deserve one and 47% wouldn't step up to take on new projects that they know would show off their skills. 
Ultimately, I (and many others, I have no doubt) am no longer sure my imposter syndrome is or ever was real. Technically I suppose I was an outsider in my first job but I was not deceiving anyone. I had a right to be there. The problem was not me, it was the fact that I was the only person from a low-income background on my team. The modern world of work is still disproportionately designed to suit men, too. We are still trying to get pay parity, truly flexible hours and end maternity discrimination. This is why women struggle to shape work around pregnancy, childcare and menstruation. It’s also why some disabled people struggle with traditional work styles and why working-class people sometimes feel they shouldn’t be there at all. Of course, racial biases play out in the workplace too.
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We can’t ignore the fact that social mobility has stagnated. It’s to be expected that working-class women will experience what feels like imposter syndrome throughout their working lives if they do move into a new social or economic class. 
Perhaps it is time to stop telling women that they have imposter syndrome. Could we not better direct our energies into encouraging workplaces and corporations to address the inequalities that occur on their watch?
Do you have imposter syndrome or are you exhausted? Do you have imposter syndrome or are you just battling sexism and classism in the workplace? The onus should not be on the individual worker to take on these struggles. Diagnosing a person’s very real feelings of isolation and self-doubt as imposter syndrome and asking them to fix it themselves is blame-shifting. You cannot girlboss your way out of structural inequality. Realising that may be the cure for imposter syndrome itself. 

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