Self-deprecation

It’s a commonplace that high-achieving women often suffer from the imposter syndrome — a belief that they do not deserve the success they have achieved. Athene Donald has some interesting posts about it in the context of academia.

It’s also commonly observed that women tend towards self-deprecation. Sometimes it’s in jest, but not always. Lucy Kellaway wrote about the tendency the other week (may be gated for you).

This is meant to be one of the ways women sabotage themselves. We talk ourselves down and by doing so, we hold ourselves down. Even women who have managed to rise go on harming themselves by incontinently banging on about how hopeless they are.

She goes on to point out that actually it’s a rather effective tactic, as long it’s completely clear that you are not remotely useless in the context being discussed. Tony Blair and Boris Johnson are past masters of the technique.

Self-deprecation is only dangerous if there is any chance at all that the person you are talking to might agree with it. … Only when it is clear to everyone that a woman’s skill is beyond doubt will it be time for her to start telling everyone that she is useless.

So, taking successful men as our model doesn’t always work. Patterns that work for them may not work for us. If people are predisposed to think that we aren’t completely on top of what we are doing, admitting any possibility of failure will be taken at face value. It’s only if people are completely confident that we are doing a good job that any hint of self deprecation won’t be pounced on.

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