An Impostor in the Labyrinth

How career obstacles disproportionally affect women and what we can do about it.

Have you ever felt that your successful career was all about having great timing? Or maybe you think that you’ve just been lucky, at least until now, and you fear that luck may run out soon. Or do you find yourself worrying that people will soon find out that you are not deserving of the success you’ve had? If these are occasional or frequent thoughts, then you may be experiencing Impostor Syndrome[1].

Impostor Syndrome is a psychological term that was coined in the 1970s by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It refers to a phenomenon where people have difficulty internalizing their accomplishments and fear that they may soon be exposed as a fraud, even when there is more than enough evidence to show that they are competent and capable in the work they do.

Is Impostor Syndrome Always a Problem?

You’ve likely heard of this term, and even more likely felt it at some point in your career. It is estimated that approximately 70% of adults reported having Impostor Syndrome at least once in their life[2]. But is it always a problem?

Having some self-doubt may be an inevitable part of being an introspective person, and perhaps a small dose of self-doubt is a way to push yourself to excel at what you do. There’s a lot to be said for having a tamed ego in a world that seems to hand out prizes for self-promotion.

Having Impostor Syndrome, however, goes beyond healthy humility. Rooted in perfectionism, Impostor Syndrome can be debilitating and exhausting, and over time can lead to anxiety and increased levels of stress-causing cortisol. It can also be challenging to speak to others about, especially when the popular narrative is that self-confidence is a prerequisite to lead others.

Women are Disporportionately Impacted by Impostor Syndrome

While Impostor Syndrome can affect all genders, several studies have revealed that it often affects high-achieving women who have experienced notable academic or career accomplishments are disproportionately impacted.

It’s also been found to have an outsized impact on black, indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC), and those within the LGBTQ community.

Impostor Syndrome seems to thrive in high-achieving settings with low diversity and inclusion.

As if dealing with Impostor Syndrome isn’t hard enough, women are more likely to experience the twists, turns, and potential dead-ends that resemble a labyrinth[3] as they progress through their career journey. Women may no longer encounter the metaphorical “glass ceiling” as they advance in their career – but they’re more likely to get lost in the labyrinth.

If we look closer at the numbers, it tells a frustratingly stagnant story. The Rosenzweig Report has tracked the number of women in named positions across publicly traded companies in Canada for more than 15 years.

In 2021, the report noted 533 Named Executive Officers (NEOs), of which 481 are men, and 52 are women. Of these 52 women, 8 are BIPOC, none of which are in Canada’s top 50 companies.

More numbers shared recently by Women Get on Board Inc., an organization aiming to increase boardroom gender diversity, reveal that among the 237 new listings on the Toronto Stock Exchange, 15.8% of the 1428 board seats are occupied by women. The COVID-19 pandemic has further impacted female representation in senior leadership positions because of the share of childcare and eldercare that have been carried by women.

With both internal and external factors potentially impeding women’s career journeys, the prospects of experiencing a fulfilling and smooth ascension throughout their work years may seem quite bleak.

In summary, the struggle is real!

So, how can women navigate these obstacles to enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding career experience when some aspects aren’t even within their control? There are no quick fixes or easy answers. There also isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Nor is it always linear.

Women’s career aspirations and journeys are diverse. Navigating the labyrinth starts with gaining a better understanding of what matters most to you, and what your guiding values are. Is title important? Work/life balance? Career mobility? Or something else? Is this about a leadership ‘destination’ or is the journey the part that excites you?

Start with a deeper understanding of what your purpose and values, and career goals are. This can serve as a way to orient yourself in where you are now and where you want to go.

Here are some additional strategies for navigating the labyrinth:

Consider the role that perfectionism plays in your life and career.

Research has shown a connection between perfectionism and Impostor Syndrome. If you identify as a perfectionist, it may be helpful to think about whether this trait has been helpful to your career so far, or if it has held you back in some way. If perfectionism and impostor syndrome are impacting your career, consider reframing your self-talk and challenging your views of yourself. Reach out to others who you respect to gain another vantage point.

Take stock of the influence you may already have and how it can serve other women in your organization.

In addition, be intentional in building a close internal network of female contacts. Uplifting and connecting with other women can have a multiplier effect. As the saying goes, there is power in numbers. A 2019 Harvard study on women’s leadership success predictors revealed that women who built an internal network consisting of other women were more likely to increase their salary and be promoted to senior leadership roles. Who are your close female contacts in your organization? How can you further build these connections?

Professional coaching can be a tool that helps unpack and overcome some of the challenges faced along career paths.

Coaching is not counselling, advisory, mentoring, or therapy. It is its own distinct process whereby a coach listens attentively and asks effective open-ended questions within a psychologically safe and non-judgmental environment. The purpose of coaching is to invite exploration of topics that lead to clarity of mind, discovering what’s important, and uncovering new thinking that identifies actions to move forward

By looking at these issues through a wider lens there is a greater possibility for new thinking, creation of solutions, and ultimately achieving what matters most.

Focusing coaching conversations on both internal and external challenges can provide an aerial view of the labyrinth that can help someone prevail over the things that are holding them back in their professional life.

As researchers and female leadership experts Alice Eagly and Linda Carli put it, “When the eye can take in the whole of the puzzle – the starting position, the goal, and the maze of walls – solutions begin to suggest themselves.”

As we move into a new month celebrating women’s history, this is a great time for reflection and introspection. Let’s aim to embrace our ideal selves, open previously closed doors, armed with the tools to carve our own paths through the labyrinth.

[1] Clance PR, Imes SA. The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic interventionGroup Dyn. 1978;15(3):241-247. doi:10.1037/h0086006

[2] Bravata, D., Watts, S., Keefer, A., Madhusudhan, D., Taylor, K., Clark, D., Nelson, R., Cokley, K., & Hagg, H. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine : JGIM35(4), 1252–1275.

[3] Eagly, A., & Carli, L. (2007). Women and the labyrinth of leadership. Harvard Business Review85(9), 62–.


  • Michelle Winklaar is a certified coach, facilitator, and leadership thought partner that brings a uniquely broad and dynamic career experience to her client relationships. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from York University and a Master’s degree in Leadership from the Lang School of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph. Michelle is an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) with the International Coaching Federation and a former two-term Minister of Economy and Education for the island of Aruba, and former CEO of Digicel Aruba.