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Margaret Wente

Women, power and the imposter syndrome Add to ...

I’m lucky to have a circle of friends and acquaintances who are talented, kind, accomplished and highly respected in their fields. One is a top journalist at another paper. One is an experienced money manager who handles private investments for bankers and other picky people. Another has founded several non-profit organizations, worked with inner-city kids and been named to the Order of Canada.

They have something else in common too. All have confessed to me at various times that they feel like frauds. Despite their brilliant records of achievement, they’ve spent large parts of their lives racked with self-doubt. All had a nagging fear that they would eventually be exposed for the dreadful failures they really are.

I can relate to them, because for years, I felt like that too. Would you care to guess what sex we are?

Self-doubt – sometimes known as the imposter syndrome – is primarily a female affliction. It is rarely cited as a reason why women still have a problem making it to the top. It seldom figures in those tedious discussions of the glass ceiling that break out any time some new study finds that women still make up only 15 per cent of CEOs. Self-doubt doesn’t get a mention in women’s studies courses, which prefer to blame the invisible scourge of “systemic discrimination” and the stubborn remnants of the patriarchy for excluding women from power. It is almost never cited in analyses of the wage gap, which has shrunk dramatically but by no means disappeared.

But now, self-doubt – and other self-inflicted wounds – are getting the candid discussion they deserve, from someone who has brilliantly overcome (or perhaps co-opted) them. She is Sheryl Sandberg, the 41-year-old chief operating officer of Facebook. She’s the person who figured out how Facebook can make money, and helped turn it into a company that could be worth $100-billion. She’s probably the most powerful woman in Silicon Valley today. Ms. Sandberg’s views are drawing plenty of attention, most recently in a New Yorker profile by Ken Auletta. (You can see her for yourself on the web, delivering a TED Talk.) She’s a wonderfully honest, empathetic speaker, and obviously nice. Her message to the next generation of ambitious women: Don’t sabotage yourself.

“Women systematically underestimate their capabilities,” she says. “If you ask a man why he did a good job, he’ll say, ‘I’m awesome.’ A woman will say, ‘I’m lucky I got someone good to help me.’ ” When offered their first job after university, 57 per cent of men negotiate for themselves. Only 7 per cent of women do. “Women don’t feel they deserve their success,” she argues. “They don’t even understand it.”

Ms. Sandberg contends that a major reason why women still make less money and have lower-ranking jobs than men is very simple – they just don’t ask for it. In my experience, this is true. When I was a manager, men would barge into my office all the time, demanding more. Women would creep in, with apologies. (Personally, every time I asked for a raise I would go home and throw up.) There are social and psychological issues at play, of course. The data say that success and likeability are positively correlated for men, but inversely correlated for women. But the solution, according to Ms. Sandberg, is for women to get over it. Raise your hand, keep it up and make sure you’re sitting at the table.

It’s hard to imagine that Ms. Sandberg ever felt like a fraud. But she claims she did. For the record, she went to Harvard, where she was mentored by Larry Summers and graduated as the top student in economics. (Most men would mention these facts within five minutes of the time you meet them.) She worked for the World Bank and then for Google. She’s made a fortune, could be CEO of almost any company she wants and is wildly popular in part because she’s completely unpretentious.

She also has a husband (whom she describes as an equal partner) and two young kids. Which brings us to the second problem: guilt. “I know no women who don’t feel that sometimes,” she says. The trouble is that women don’t think they’re entitled to a big job and motherhood as well. They start counting themselves out years too soon – sometimes the moment the maternal instinct starts to stir. And so, instead of leaning forward, they lean back, and some guy next to them gets the promotion. “Keep your foot on the gas pedal,” she tells young women. “Don’t make decisions too far in advance.” She also tells them to make their partner a real partner – not an easy task, but much easier than it used to be in the days when dads had little part in raising children.

Many older women don’t like what Ms. Sandberg has to say. They think that her message of self-help (instead of quotas and systemic reform) is a betrayal of feminism, and lets men off the hook. But a lot of younger women cheer. She’s offering them practical advice. She’s telling them to forget about flextime and work-life balance, and to pursue their passion. She thinks that the distribution of power will never be 50-50 in her lifetime, or maybe ever, because women face obstacles that men don’t face, and always will. But the conversation she has started about women and power is far more realistic and sophisticated than the one we’ve had until now. Even better – she’s shown that a woman can be incredibly successful, and also nice.

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