Fearless She Wrote
Published in

Fearless She Wrote

Why Do Women Talk Down Our Achievements?

And do men do the same?

Original illustration by Maggie Roman

I’m part of a number of online forums for writers — and some specifically for women writers. Recently, a (female) author reached out to me and offered to meet up for coffee so we could commiserate over how difficult and lonely the life of a writer is. I was happy to accept.

From the tone of her message, I assumed that she was in the same boat as me: ie unpublished. So I was amazed to learn that she had, in fact, published 19 Young Adult novels, at a rate of approximately one a year — mostly with major publishing houses.

My response: “Wow! That’s incredible!”

She immediately launched into a flurry of disclaimers — yes, she’d been lucky that they’d actually sold quite well, but it was YA you see, which was a much easier genre to sell than others. She was beating herself up because she had missed out on the shortlist for a certain literary award which had been announced the day before.

Then she asked me about what I’d done. I answered that I’d written and produced a feature film.

Her response: “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing!”

I immediately launched into an explanation about how I made the film only because I couldn’t get anyone else interested in my screenplay, and anyway it didn’t go to the major film festivals and only had a limited theatrical release so it wasn’t really very successful.

As we effusively congratulated the other on their achievements, but failed to even recognise our own, I suddenly wondered whether a conversation between a multi-published author and feature filmmaker would sound the same if we were two men sitting at that table.

What is imposter sydrome?

Imposter syndrome is by now a well-documented phenomenon: it is a pattern of thinking in which you doubt your accomplishments and fear being exposed as a fraud. The perpetual self-talk runs along the lines of: You’re inferior to everyone else, you don’t deserve to be here, you’re a phony, you’re going to be found out.

But the current ran even deeper through our conversation: it’s not that we didn’t own our accomplishments or that we thought we achieved them through blind luck. It’s that we didn’t even see them as accomplishments. As someone who has tried and failed to get even one manuscript into the world as a book, I was in awe that the woman opposite me could so readily dismiss the fact that she’d managed this 19 times.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

For her part, she kept calling me a “real writer” because I work in different formats — while I insisted that I’m not particularly successful in any of them.

“It’s not a real film,” I counter-argued, “Because no one paid me to make it.” And we were off again.

Where does it come from?

My female friends tell me off because I don’t call myself a filmmaker. “I’ve made a single feature film” is my reasoning. “I’ll call myself that after I make a second film,” I say, but in my head I add: But only if it does better than the first one.

Of course, all writers live with rejection as a constant companion. Even the most successful creatives know the pain of self-doubt: I once read John Steinback (a bestselling writer and definitely not a woman) saying that every time he started a new novel, he didn’t believe he could ever finish it.

The internet certainly doesn’t help. My social media feeds are filled with stories of people publishing novels, releasing films and winning awards . Meanwhile, my own inbox is crammed with emails that almost always begin the same way: Thank you for giving us the opportunity to see your work. Unfortunately…

It could also be an Australian quality — as a culture, we have traditionally been averse to “tall poppies”. It’s not so much the achieving that bothers us, it’s the getting big ideas about yourself as a result of those achievements. Best not to mention them at all.

Women and imposter syndrome

Some research suggests that women are more prone to imposter syndrome than men, who may experience it less frequently and with lower intensity. Even the term imposter syndrome was coined by two female psychologists in a study specifically relating to high-achieving women in the 1970s.

Women tend to internalise failure — blaming ourselves when we don’t get the desired results. Perhaps we judge ourselves more strongly for the things we goals we didn’t hit (the literary award shortlist, the big film festival) — and hold these up as signs that we just aren’t good enough. Women also tend to attribute their successes to external factors (“YA is an easy genre to sell”).

Other studies show that, while men and women may both fear self-promotion, this feeling is more likely to actually hold women back (whereas men may be able to go ahead and do it anyway). Where self-confidence is generally viewed as a positive quality in men, women worry about being seen as boasting. We might come across as vain or, in Australian lingo, “up ourselves”.

And so we talk down our achievements. In the best female friendships, we applaud each other. Hopefully we can learn to do this for ourselves.

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