Arts & Culture The Gulf Women Issue

Khaleeji women: Fake it till you make it

One psychological hurdle faced by pioneering women is termed “imposter syndrome” or “imposterism”.

In the 1970s, only a tiny fraction of the Gulf’s young men received a university education; this fraction was even smaller for the Gulf’s young women. In 1971, the literacy rates for men and women over the age of 16 were 50 per cent and 30 per cent respectively – 70 per cent of women couldn’t read and write. 

Today, just under half a century later, literacy rates are in the 90s and roughly equal numbers of males and females attend secondary school. Concerning graduation from university in the Gulf, women now outnumber men, making up more than 60 per cent of the graduating student body. Not only do more females graduate, Gulf women outperform their male counterparts in terms of grades as well.

All of the research being performed points to significantly superior outcomes for women when it comes to undergraduate academic performance. Whether using cumulative grade point averages (GPA) or specific course grades as indicators, the Gulf’s women do better than the Gulf’s men. For example, a study published in The Journal of Business Education found that female undergraduates at the college of business and economics at UAE University significantly outperformed their male colleagues. Another study, published in The International Journal of Business Management, reports that Kuwaiti females have higher GPAs than their male counterparts across the academic board. One of our studies, published in Learning and Teaching in the Gulf, tells the same story, comparing the grades of close to 4000 Emirati students.

The female dominance in academics has not, however, resulted in greater female participation in the workforce. The rate of Gulf women in the workplace (economically active females over the age of 15) is variable, with Kuwait presently boasting the highest level – estimated at around 47 per cent according to a 2017 report by International Labour Organization. For Saudi Arabia, the reported rate is just 22 per cent. To give this an international context, female participation in the workforce in Iceland is estimated at 72 per cent.

Most of the Gulf States are pursuing aggressive programs for workforce nationalisation, so having more female citizens in the workforce helps achieve this goal. There is now a highly visible trend of Gulf women joining the workforce in an increasingly diverse array of roles. This trend is reflected in the regional press, with frequent headlines celebrating female workforce firsts – first female pilot, first female figure skater, first female minister, etc. We are living through a heyday of Gulf female firsts in which workforce pioneers are blazing the trail of change.

Being a workforce “first”, however, is not without its challenges. One psychological hurdle faced by such pioneering women is termed “imposter syndrome” or “imposterism”. The condition occurs when highly talented individuals have misplaced feelings about being fakers – let’s call it chronic self-doubt. It is as though the person (male or female) is unable to attribute their achievements to their abilities.

One of the key features of imposter syndrome is holding a deep-seated belief that other people have an overly positive view of you; “I’m not as good as you think I am”. This chronic self-doubt can lead to self-sabotaging behaviours, such as procrastinating, picking unnecessary fights and quitting without due cause. Another possible manifestation of imposterism is the tendency towards workaholism. In a vain attempt to silence self-doubts, the imposter may overwork as if to prove their own worth to themselves. Such behaviour often earns the imposter another promotion or accolade that they feel unworthy of.

These feelings appear to be especially strong among first-generation professionals and high achievers. The rapid development of the Gulf States has resulted in many women becoming the first female “this” or the youngest ever “that”. It would be useful to explore the prevalence of imposter syndrome among young people in the Gulf in order to evaluate interventions aimed at remedying it. To date however, there are no published studies on this topic in the region. 

Ultimately, imposter syndrome is not good for an individual’s well-being, and it certainly doesn’t help organisational performance or workforce nationalisation. The good news about imposter syndrome is that just knowing about it can be helpful for those experiencing it. Becoming aware that it is not that rare- that other people also feel like fakes- can be incredibly helpful.

Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.