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Having It All, Including Doubt: Book review of "The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women" by Valerie Young

Melanie Kirkpatrick

Halfway through The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Valerie Young quotes Margaret Thatcher. As the first woman to lead a major Western democracy, the former British prime minister is arguably the most successful female politician of all time. In speaking of her brilliant career, the Iron Lady, as usual, does not mince words: “I wasn’t lucky,” she said. “I deserved it.”

Baroness Thatcher’s remark is one of the few sensible statements in this well-meaning but silly book about the crippling self-doubts that supposedly plague women who excel in their careers. The word “secret” in the book’s title refers to the author’s thesis that successful women privately feel like frauds.

Are you a working woman? If so, according to Ms. Young, chances are that you suffer from a malady known as the “imposter syndrome.” Sufferers “have a persistent belief in their lack of intelligence, skills, or competence,” Ms. Young explains. “They are convinced that other people’s praise and recognition of their accomplishments is undeserved, chalking up their achievements to chance, charm, connections and other external factors.”

These pitiful women lack the confidence to recognize their own abilities, Ms. Young declares. Rather, she says, they explain away their successes. They were “lucky” to get that promotion. Or they were “in the right place at the right time.” Or they “had a lot of help.” Bosses, colleagues or others who speak highly of their work are only “being nice.” Or even, “they felt sorry for me.”

If you think you’re immune to the imposter syndrome, think again. Ms. Young cites a study claiming that 70% of successful people have experienced the imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. While men can suffer from it, she says, it is more common among women. She notes another study that says the imposter syndrome usually strikes women who make it in male-dominated industries. Nurses, teachers and women in other pink-collar fields are safe. “The places where women are most apt to feel incompetent and illegitimate are in the public spheres of power and authority,” she writes. In other words, blame the patriarchy.

The imposter syndrome was cooked up in 1978 by two Georgia State University psychologists who had observed that the academically impressive female students they counseled sometimes expressed feelings that their success was undeserved. Four years later, Ms. Young, then working on a doctorate in education, heard about the psychologists’ work and diagnosed herself. She was thrilled to discover that her “vague yet overwhelming feelings of self-doubt and angst actually have a name.”

Ms. Young went on to build a career on the imposter syndrome, about which she speaks widely at universities and at businesses that are gullible enough to hire her. You have to wonder if the management of Intel, Ernst & Young, Procter & Gamble, Bristol-Myers Squibb and
IBM—and the other companies that have paid for her advice—know what she is feeding their employees. “Being female,” she writes, “means you and your work automatically stand a greater chance of being ignored, discounted, trivialized, devalued, or otherwise taken less seriously than a man’s.” Is that really the message that companies wish to convey to the women who work for them?

Such statements rang true 40 years ago, when small numbers of pioneering women were struggling to succeed in a workplace that was traditionally the domain of men. They’re harder to credit today, when women thrive in almost every field. In any case, painting American women in 2011 as victims of a society that does not take seriously the idea of female competence is both wrong and laughable. At universities, women account for more than half of undergraduates and earn more doctorates than men. In the work force, as the research organization Catalyst has determined, women account for more than half of managers and professionals. Women lag as CEOs and directors, but those numbers are growing too.

To the extent that one can stereotype workers of either gender, it is probably true that women are less assertive than men and that they tend to be more people-oriented, more modest and more sensitive to criticism than their male counterparts. But so what? A more interesting angle would have been to explore how such traditional female personality traits are affecting managerial styles and communication in the workplace now that women are so common in business and the professions.

Like so many self-help books, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women relies heavily on anecdotes and quotations to make its points. Actress Meryl Streep, it seems, gets cold feet at the beginning of every movie project and worries whether the audience will like her performance. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is quoted saying that she sometimes had trouble making people pay attention to her as a female attorney in the 1960s and 1970sa problem, one might note, that didn’t hurt her rise to the top of her profession.

Secret Thoughts is written in a breezy, just-between-us-gals style, and Ms. Young sometimes sounds like a Cosmo girl with a social-science degree. My favorite: “To what extent are you letting concerns that you’ll be less desirable to a man impact your career decisions?”

Needless to say, not all women in the workplace possess Baroness Thatcher’s supreme self-confidence. But neither are we all the psychological basket cases that Ms. Young describes. At any rate, self-confidence—in either sex—is an overrated virtue in our me-centered culture. A little self-doubt once in a while can be a positive attributein the workplace as well as in every other aspect of life.

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