Being a young woman is bloody tough. Not only do we have to endure the usual strife that goes along with being a millennial in our current climate (hello avocadoes being blamed for us not owning houses or getting jobs), but there is also a gendered element to our experiences. Young women are hit with a double whammy and, as a result, are constantly ridiculed, patronised and mansplained to because people seem to think that we are naïve, lack “life experience in the real world” and need the “kind” of advice only someone older could offer – think the “I am sixteen going on seventeen” sort of way. Age is often weaponised against us and our competence; our opinions and skills are often undermined. We are too young, too naïve, too shrill, too vain, too feminine, and the list goes on. The joke is on them though, as we are collectively and individually boss ass bitches. We would have to be after all the shit we were put through as teenagers (thanks, patriarchy).
This double whammy, however, has real impacts. The undermining of young women’s experiences and competence contributes to imposter syndrome – a phenomenon that is all-too-common amongst women. Imposter syndrome instils in individuals an overarching fear of being exposed as a fraud or a fake. In academia, this manifests in people constantly fearing that they are not intelligent enough or confident enough to be an academic or postgraduate student. This fear makes people experiencing imposter syndrome much less likely to apply for job positions and promotions, to submit papers to journals or conferences, or to network with other academics, in case people find out they are a fraud. It also significantly increases stress and nervousness.
I am a sufferer of imposter syndrome and I wholeheartedly believe that the intersection of my age and gender has something to do with it. (Not the sole cause, but a significant factor.) I constantly tell myself I am not smart enough or good enough or hard-working enough. I constantly fear that it will be found out that I am a fraud – a passionate, feminist activist instead of a smart, hardworking academic who researches feminism. (I ask myself: “Why not both?”)
I was 21 when I travelled to Canberra from my hometown of Adelaide to start my PhD. I knew no-one at ANU – or in Canberra – and it was an extremely lonely experience. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was a young woman, barely in my 20s, undertaking a mammoth task that not many people do in their lifetime – let alone when they’re fresh out of teenage-hood. I looked around my department and quickly figured out that I was the youngest person there by at least a decade. I felt uncomfortable and alone. It’s harder to connect with people when they are in a different stage of life. While you might want to go to a party or a club, they have children, a mortgage and money. So, I made friends with undergraduate students and instantly felt more at home.
What is really difficult as a young woman doing a PhD is people assuming that you aren’t a postgraduate student. People who are older – and especially men – are automatically assumed to be either postgraduates or staff and, therefore, automatically get treated with the authority and respect that these positions garner. This elevates their confidence. Meanwhile, other people – usually young women – are assumed to be undergraduate students, which is extremely disempowering and unsurprisingly erodes their confidence further. In my interactions with other young women academics over the years, I have heard countless stories of how they will go to staff meetings, lecture theatres or tutorials and get mistaken for a student, despite being a tenured lecturer. One woman I met even jokingly said that they want to make a t-shirt with “I am staff” printed on the front of it.
I am a sufferer of imposter syndrome and I wholeheartedly believe that the intersection of my age and gender has something to do with it.
With time, constantly having to prove yourself simply because you do not look like the stereotypical academic gets grating. You start to feel self-conscious, defensive and disempowered when you are forced to deal with this so frequently. Before every semester that I teach, I get paranoid and anxious that students won’t see me as staff and, therefore, will not give me the respect that my colleagues get purely for looking the part. Seasoned women academics that I have talked to tell me stories of how students disrespect them far more frequently than they do their male counterparts. That students are much less likely to listen to a woman’s voice – let alone a young woman’s voice – is because of ingrained sexism and the patriarchy. There is also a problem with the oft-dreaded SELTS forms. I have heard countless women academics discuss how they frequently receive SELTS that discuss their appearance, voice, attractiveness and age. And this is a global problem – the women I talk to aren’t just from ANU.
I remember teaching (at a different university) and having one of my students ask for one-on-one help with their upcoming exam. As I was helping them, they started discussing my age. I reluctantly told them that I was 23 (at the time) and they scoffed and said they were 25. I started to feel uncomfortable, but my discomfort heightened when they told me that when I was their age I would understand the world a lot more! I was their teacher but they treated me like I was inferior purely because of how old I was. I highly doubt they would have said something like that to a young male tutor.
Subtle instances like this are extremely patronising and ridiculing and, when repeated, inevitably have an impact on how you see yourself, while further fuelling your anxieties about being a young woman. It is also the casual comments from people at conferences or networking opportunities, where I’m regularly referred to as a “girl” by people far older than me. (I am NOT a girl, I am a woman!) This constant, everyday belittling from people within academia and students and the general public serves to reinforce stereotypes and ridicule me. The intersecting weaponisation of my age and my gender is really tiring. Every instance reinforces the imposter syndrome I confront daily.
But it’s not all bad. There are allies. There are senior women academics out there that mentor young women like me. There are communities we have made because we had nowhere comfortable to go. There is support. There is nurturing. It’s still hard, but it’s something.
I am working my arse off to try and fuel myself with a healthy ego and a constant reminder that I AM good enough, I AM smart enough and I will help pave, encourage and support fellow young women into believing that we ARE more than enough, that we are badass and that we are boss ass bitches. When in doubt, I always revert back to my life mantra: “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.”