You have completed your degree, BTPC, pupillage and despite the odds, secured tenancy. Along the way you won mooting competitions, scholarships, and awards and yet, as you walk into court you feel a tightening in your throat and butterflies in your stomach. You look around at other counsel waiting to be heard and suddenly you have an overwhelming feeling that you don’t really deserve to be here, that you are a fraud, and perhaps today is the day that you will be found out.

Those feelings are elements of imposter syndrome, an idea which took hold following an article written in 1978 (Clance & Imes) describing a prevalent belief in high achieving women that despite their success, they were not actually that clever and had fooled everyone to get to where they were. Once the problem was identified, courses, programmes and books followed in an attempt to address it. Nowadays, no conference for high achieving women is complete without a session on overcoming imposter syndrome. Google it and you will find thousands of articles helping to identify whether you have it (including some seeking to establish if you are a fraud), helping to address it and others naming famous and successful women who insist that despite their fame, they too are imposters.

And therein lies the rub. The 1978 study only evaluated the feelings of women. The authors noted that the experience of men ‘needs to be researched’. It was, and there is no clear gender divide; men, too, can have the unenviable experience of feeling like frauds (Sakulku, 2011), and some studies including a large-scale study in 2018 (Badaway et al) suggest that men can be hit harder than women.

Despite that, the narrative continues to be that this is a women’s issue: there aren’t courses aimed at ‘curing’ men, and when a group of male barristers gather they do not discuss their fear of being ‘found out’ (we assume).

The intentions behind talking about imposter syndrome have been only good. It is talked about to try to reassure younger women in our stressful profession that they are not alone, and that it is perfectly normal to feel self-doubt at all levels of a career. It is talked about as part of a really welcome openness, where women at the senior Bar now are genuinely keen to lean down and pull others up, and part of that is sharing stories of personal anxieties, showing that you can make it at the Bar even if you are not swaggeringly confident. It may be time, though, to reassess whether it is a helpful label.

There is a risk that identifying imposter syndrome pathologizes normal anxieties. As it is not a recognised syndrome by any psychiatric body it is hard to measure, but ‘real’ imposter syndrome can be an extreme state of believing that your exam results were added up incorrectly, or your interview notes swapped for someone more brilliant, or that you are in some sort of experiment to see how a stupid person will fare in a difficult job. When people talk about imposter syndrome they are, most of the time, in fact talking about less extreme and widespread emotions. As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review said: ‘Imposter syndrome took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women’ (Tulshyan and Burey, 2021).

The reality is that those feelings of insecurity, worry and the butterflies that you feel as you get up to address a jury or a tribunal are part of being a successful barrister. Every single one of us doing the job that we do has felt at one time or another nervous, worried, panicky, and even at times, wondered whether we were capable of undertaking whatever brief we have been instructed in. That is a natural, healthy reaction to anything that challenges us. It may well be helpful for senior women at the Bar to continue to talk to younger women about their doubts and insecurities. But perhaps we should not label that ‘imposter syndrome’, and perhaps we should be including men in that conversation about how stressful and demanding our profession is, and how we can all be better armed to deal with it.

The narrative also makes it harder for high-achieving women to talk about our successes without fear of being labelled as arrogant. If we say, ‘I don’t have imposter syndrome’ there’s a worry that we are being heard to say, ‘I have no doubt about my ability and think I am the Best Ever’. There is a risk that we are backing up the negative view of successful and ambitious women. Authoritative behaviours associated with leadership are viewed remarkably negatively in women (eg the famous Heidi v Howard study by Prof Frank Flynn at Columbia Business School).

A recent article in Grazia argued that the phrase ‘imposter syndrome’ should be jettisoned because it is tied to ‘other belief systems which demand that women are self-deprecating about their success’ . That self-deprecation makes it harder for women to apply at the right time for silk or judicial positions, and hard to talk about ourselves in the way required for competency-based applications, which require us to say: ‘I did that, and I was right and it worked.’ A far lower proportion of eligible women than eligible men apply for appointment as QC (‘Balancing the Scales: a study of the underapplication of women for appointment as QC’, The Work Foundation, 2017), perhaps partly a result of under-estimating ability. Instead of always being self-deprecating, it would be great to talk about our achievements, and our confidence. Let’s normalise young women talking about ambitions.

Primarily, imposter syndrome is an unhelpful focus because we don’t need to fix working women, we need to fix the culture in which we work. Despite great strides in equality, women, and those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, are lower paid and lower ranked at the Bar. Female barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds are the lowest paid barristers while white male counsel receive the highest incomes, figures published by the Bar Standards Board show. As of 1 April 2020, 32% of court judges and 47% of tribunal judges were women. The proportion of women has increased in recent years but remains lower in senior court appointments (26% for High Court and above); just 17% of Queen’s Counsel and 32% of partner solicitors.

Sometimes when people talk about imposter syndrome they may be talking about a sense of exclusion, or lack of representation, and not seeing people similar to them at the top of the tree. Let’s continue to find ways to improve diversity – there is no shortage of great initiatives from groups like Women in Criminal Law, Bridging the Bar, Temple Women’s Forum, Women in Family Law, the Western Circuit Women’s Forum, Bar None and many more. And let’s continue to amplify the voices of women and BAME practitioners, many of whom are part of a strong Twitter and real-world community: Jo Delahunty QC, Alexandra Wilson, Mary Prior QC, Hannah Markham QC to name a few. This is a great profession, and will be all the better when we properly reflect the society in which we operate.

So if you have just joined us, a huge welcome, and congratulations. You have not got here by fluke, and you deserve to be here. We hope you find all the support you may need if you feel anxious, we hope you will join the action if you feel underrepresented, and we look forward to hearing about your successes in the years to come. 

References:The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention’, Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes, Georgia State University; Jaruwan Sakulku, ‘The Impostor Phenomenon’, International Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 2011, Vol 6.1; ‘Are all impostors created equal? Exploring gender differences in the impostor phenomenon-performance link’, Rebecca L Badaway, Personality and Individual Differences, Vol 131; ‘Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome’, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, Harvard Business Review, 11/2/21; ‘Women & the Leadership Labyrinth: Howard vs Heidi’, Maria Katsarou, Leadership Psychology Institute; ‘Why I Won’t Let My Daughters Believe In Impostor Syndrome’, Lorraine Candy, Grazia, 9/6/21; ‘Balancing the Scales: a study of the underapplication of women for appointment as QC’, The Work Foundation, 2017.