Symposium on Systemic Racism and Sexism in Legal Academia: (Not) Only Men on the Walls

Symposium on Systemic Racism and Sexism in Legal Academia: (Not) Only Men on the Walls

[Chris Carpenter is a lawyer and researcher in international law. She holds a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a master’s from the University of Cambridge.]

This piece is about imposter syndrome, which I encountered in beginning my master’s at the University of Cambridge. When I submitted an abstract for this symposium, countless memories spanning almost a decade in higher education sprung to mind: sexual harassment from faculty, the blatant sexism of an interviewer when applying to law school, the experience of sitting in constitutional law classes reading case law that explicitly prohibited women from becoming lawyers. Any of these would fit this symposium. Indeed, I expect several of these themes to feature in other pieces. They represent pervasive and corrosive issues that legal academia must address.

Although I immediately thought of these examples of sexism in legal academia, which were clear and damaging when they happened, the abstract I typed was not about those memories. It was about a different memory—rather, a feeling that grew over months and stained a slew of experiences. My subconscious was curious about my feelings of being an imposter. So I’ve examined them for myself and for you, which is terrifying. 

I’ve written this piece as a letter to my past self: the woman who muddled through the first few months of grad school, before eventually realizing she felt like an imposter. While anyone is susceptible to this syndrome, there is an added, weighty layer to it for women and people of color—those trying to exist in a space that was not built to hold them. But for its commonality, I found imposter syndrome a sneaky and confounding companion. My subconscious pushed me to write a piece I would have benefitted from reading years ago.   

[Caveat. I feel it is important to be honest with you: I’m scared. I put off writing this for weeks because everytime I felt I was ready, what I held in my mind then seemed either too much or not enough. I’ve finally accepted that for some, these fears will prove true. Being okay with that has become my goal.]

Something’s Not Right Here

The clock is loud. As you sit in the Lauterpacht Centre on the morning of your first international law class, it will seem ironic that the thing to cut through your jet lag is not the shadow cast by the Centre’s previous inhabitants, but the clock. Large and wooden, older than your grandparents, it ticks in a way that makes you anxious. Anxiety may be an old school friend, but this is something different. You won’t know what it is yet, and you won’t figure it out for a while. 

In this room, you will be surrounded by a dozen classmates from all over the world. No one says much, just looking around at this almost-fictional space. It is exactly what you imagined, yet still a surprise. This room is real, even though it feels like it belongs in another time. Directly in front of you, on the wall behind the person sitting across from you, is a portrait of a man in a horsehair wig. He is an older white man with a furrowed brow and distinguished expression, someone who looks like he was tired and weary after a long day at court (the kind with a king, not a judge). A sound at the door will make you drop his gaze, but he goes on staring. 

When Marc Weller enters the room, everyone sits up straighter. You met Marc briefly over coffee the week before, along with his other two supervisees for the MPhil, but the man sitting at the head of the ancient wooden table is a different Marc. This is the Marc that eats, sleeps, and breathes International Law, that took over the post of Centre Director from the James Crawford, that has states calling to be counseled on issues that will alter the geopolitical landscape. This must be the source of the feeling, you think: you’re just nervous because this is Marc Weller. And you’re a girl from New Hampshire with a liberal arts degree in International Relations, who couldn’t answer a single one of his questions about your dissertation.

But then class starts, and Marc is friendly and welcoming. He is funny and engaging and nonjudgmental of our collective lack of international legal knowledge. Although you find this, too, inconsistent. Sure, you are all on the same course, but you are not the same. While some students are ‘straight through’, like you, Lizzy worked for the US Foreign Service in Islamabad and speaks several languages; Adam has a photographic memory and can quote word-for-word texts he read years ago; and Ronan did brilliantly in POLIS undergrad and seemed to know everything about Cambridge. You’ll think it must be these people making you nervous. Until a few weeks later, and these people will already be fast friends. 

But the lovelier your peers and mentors are, the more confused you become as the feeling doesn’t go away. On the contrary, it grows stronger. It will affect how you exist in these spaces, in these rooms you giddily entered. Where you’re usually eager to speak, you will sit in silence. You will read every piece in the syllabus—including the recommended readings and suggested further readings. You will have thoughts and questions, and want to talk about them, but then you will come to class and…crickets. Your classmates will engage, making fascinating contributions, and doing so with an ease you used to possess. But where did it go? Somehow you left it back in Pennsylvania, in an undergrad seminar room, where your contribution felt less suspect.  

The Self-Gaslighting 

This feeling of unease and lack of belonging will become difficult to square with the respectful way your peers and professors will treat you. You will look around, desperately trying to locate someone that might be the source of this exclusion you have come to feel. Until one day, something clicks. Sitting in your international law class, the person across the table has just spoken, before leaning back, tilting the chair onto its back legs, forearm resting on his knee. 

You will realize it is the same pose taken by the man in the portrait on the wall behind him. They’re even leaning on the same forearm. In a sort of out-of-body experience, you will stare at your classmate, and the uncanny and unknowing impression he makes of the man on the wall. It will seem impossible that these rooms are actually the culprit behind your anxiety, even as they are covered with men posing just like this one, on every available wall. You realize that the classmates who contribute the most readily and confidently—and sometimes, you realise, wrongly—mirror the ones on the walls. 

But instead of taking this lucid moment and running with it, you will freeze. Ashamed of yourself for trying to scapegoat your feelings of inadequacy onto your peers, you’ll look away from the portraits. But as they are on every wall, you can only look down, at your hands squeezed together in your lap—a product of this new anxiety. 

When faced with an absence of the conduct or treatment you were taught to classify as sexism and exclusion—rather, in the face of constant support and encouragement, even from Marc, to whom you will be certain you are a massive disappointment—you will resign yourself to the inescapable conclusion you are not good enough to succeed at this course. None of the joyous excitement that filled you on the flight over will be left. You are empty of that thrill, pride, and eagerness. 

The Isolation 

Not knowing how to share these feelings with your classmates—which is ironic, because that would have been very helpful—you will keep this to yourself. In fact, you will hide these feelings out of fear of offending your classmates, many of whom are trying hard not to behave like the men on the walls. You won’t realize just yet why this effort is not enough. 

Being haunted by the static expressions of long dead men feels pathetic—insufficient for this thing you’re battling with. It will create turmoil and, not knowing how to explain these feelings of exclusion to your peers, you will withdraw. Outwardly, you will remain much the same: outgoing, enthusiastic, chatty. But inwardly, there will be a wall made of quick-drying cement. You will pretend the wall is there to protect you from being discovered by the peers you admire, to prevent them from uncovering the truth: you can’t handle being in this room you worked so hard for the opportunity to enter. What if they uncovered your failing? But you will feel no satisfaction in fooling them; only more shame and loneliness. 

The Mental Exhaustion 

You will be tired, completely mentally drained, all the time. The only time you won’t be exhausted will ironically be in the hours that you try to fall asleep. Instead, then, you will lie awake, recounting everything you said in every class that day. You will scrutinize every comment, checking to see if you may have exposed the truth—that you don’t actually deserve to be here. 

You won’t know this at the time, but what is happening in your mind at those small hours of the morning is happening in thousands of minds across Cambridge. Countless of your peers are doing the same calculus, reaching the same incredulous conclusion that they, too, have fooled their peers yet again, and they will have the blessing and the curse of attempting to repeat the same success again tomorrow. 

There are, however, some minds not engaging in this exhausting calculus. Oftentimes, it will be the minds of those who look like the men on the walls. The confusion and anguish and self-doubt that comes with inhabiting a mold that was not designed to fit you—that was actually designed to not fit you—will not exist for them. Years later you will realize that is likely why they participated with such ease, so early on. While most of your cohort was still dipping a toe in this deep and freezing pool, they will have cannon-balled in. The water does not feel so cold to them; it matches their body temperature. It frees up so much time and cognitive energy, you later realize, when you look like the men on the walls. No mental energy is spent thinking about how cold you are, or that you were never taught to swim. And with that mental space, some of your peers could engage eagerly and fearlessly right from the beginning. Where those of you who did not resemble the men on the walls have been treading water for months, some entered the pool able to float, buoyed by the knowledge that this space was made to hold them, and so they never had this fear of drowning. 

The Turning Point

On a cold afternoon in January, just after the winter holiday, you will be sitting with Ronan at a table in the back room of Fitzbillies. Outside is a freezing rain that you will come to recognize as typical of winter in the UK. It will make you miss the actual snow piling up at home, and the mornings spent with your family drinking hot chocolate after hours of shoveling. You will sit there, internally dreading the charade that is set to begin when Lent Term starts in two days’ time. 

Ronan is talking about a debate presentation you were paired up for in your international security class. You would have been excited for an assignment like this in undergrad, but now it feels like the charade is about to be blown. While you signed up for the humanitarian intervention debate because you felt more familiar with that unit than any other on the syllabus, hearing Ronan soundboard ideas has you feeling as out of your depth as ever. 

Finally, you just say the words that have been sitting on your chest since October—the truth, or as close as you can muster in a casual conversation. ‘I’m going to sound like such a moron next to you’, you will tell him. And he will laugh. ‘Are you kidding’, he’ll say, ‘I’ve seen those spreadsheets you’re making to track your law school applications—I don’t want to know what I’m about to unleash from your brain, but I doubt I’m ready’. You’ll smile at the joke, but small enough that Ronan sees…you weren’t kidding. 

‘This isn’t the first time you’ve thought this, is it?’ he’ll ask in his usual direct manner. ‘No’. 

And then he’ll say something that will take this whole experience and turn it on its head. He’ll make a comment about how common it is for Cambridge students to struggle with imposter syndrome. You’ll turn the phrase around in your mind, examining it from all sides. Imposter syndrome. It has a name, this mystery anxiety you’ve been carrying around for months. 

You had heard it mentioned at the start of the course, but you never connected the phrase to what you were feeling. And you will discover that Ronan was right. In talking about these thoughts and feelings, you will realize that they are pervasive among your peers. Many of them have likewise experienced this phantom anxiety, this sensation that they’re being watched by some University Secret Agents whose sole mandate is to identify students who were mistakenly admitted and correct the admissions error. 

There is no such Big Brother agency at the University of Cambridge, but its students are still being watched, by the expressions of men who would have been aghast to see the university filled with so many students who do not resemble them. Their era may have ended, but their legacy persists. A legacy you didn’t realize weighed so heavily on you until that day. 

It seems cliché to say that the truth will set you free, but in this case, it really did. Leaving that cafe, back out into the freezing rain, you’ll take a deep breath and realize that it was the first time you fully inhaled in months.   


Later in life, you will encounter a tweet by Jameela Jamil about imposter syndrome that says: ‘Just do it anyway. My answer whenever I am asked about imposter syndrome is to admit that I am an imposter, and I treat it like crashing a wedding, you’re in now, have as much fun as possible and grab all the cake you can before someone throws you out. Lean in and make it a party’. It would have been more helpful if you’d read these words in Autumn 2018—or if you’d even had a Twitter in 2018—but in hindsight, they will make you smile and feel proud that this approach is essentially what followed that conversation with Ronan. You will have seized onto every opportunity in your time at Cambridge—gone to every event, joined a rowing club, did volunteer work, and more than anything, absolutely threw yourself into the unique research environment that exists there. 

This will coincide with the fact that your imposter syndrome will never fully disappear, as you will never feel entitled to exist in the spaces that your peers—particularly your white male peers—may pass through with ease. But imposter syndrome will mercifully become a sensation to which you feel agnostic. What is the Taylor Swift lyric? ‘I forgot that you existed, it isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference’? There will have been times in your academic career where you hated imposter syndrome for its ability to keep you up at night and its ability to make you second guess your own worth and your deserving to exist in these spaces. Ironically, there will be times that you…did not exactly love imposter syndrome, but you will realize that it forced you to outperform your expectations for yourself, and redefine those expectations as a result.

But more than anything, you will reach a point that is the best of all—which is blissful indifference. Because it doesn’t actually matter if someone made a mistake letting you enter the room you now inhabit; it doesn’t matter if the men on the walls would have hated to think that the rooms they built would one day hold you. What matters is that you are in them now. And you can decide with those around you if these rooms are sufficient, or if they should be built to hold more. The expressionless faces on the walls that used to haunt you because of how much you did not look like them and how much they would have despised sharing these rooms with you, will begin to feel empowering

It will begin to feel like an exhilarating triumph to sit in that room. And every person you see in in it who likewise lacks a resemblance to the men on the walls will be a part of this resistance, this act of subtle rebellion you all share. It is a rebellion of culture within these institutions, as the system that was designed to exclude you has come to realize that actually, it needs you. Legal academia has enough men on the walls. It could use more imposters.  

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