Women Leaders as Containers: Systems Psychodynamic Insights into their Unconscious Roles

Claude Hélène Mayer, Rudolf Oosthuizen, Louise Tonelli, Sabie Surtee


The purpose of this article is to explore the self-defined roles of women leaders working in higher education institutions (HEIs) in South Africa. The aim is to explore women leadership roles in the context of systems psychodynamics to increase the understanding of unconscious dynamics in HEIs from the perspective of women leaders. The article reports on a qualitative study based on the research paradigm of Dilthey's modern hermeneutics. Interviews were conducted with 23 women leaders from the HERS-SA (Higher Education Research Services) network across eight institutions. Observations were made in one organization to support the data analysis and interpretation. Data was analysed through content analysis. Women leaders are containers of anxieties in South African HEIs, while they also act out defense mechanisms, such as splitting, projection, projective identification, introjection, idealization, simplification and rationalization. Splitting seems to be one important defense mechanism in terms of mother/professional, mother/daughter, women/men leaders and White/Black women leaders. Women leaders further seem to have introjected the roles of their mothers and female family members from their past and childhood. They do not seem to embrace the full authority and agency of their leadership positions, and they explore their own difficulties and negative emotions in others through projective identification. The findings create awareness of the roles of women leaders, strengthen women leadership and emphasise the need for leadership training taking the systems psychodynamic perspective into account.


women leader, professional roles, family roles, workplace, higher education, role confusion, South Africa

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