Women leaders as containers: Systems psychodynamic insights into their unconscious roles

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


This article explores the self-defined roles of women leaders working in higher education institutions (HEIs) in South Africa in the context of systems psychodynamics and thereby increase the understanding of unconscious dynamics in HEIs. This qualitative study is based on the research paradigm of Dilthey's modern hermeneutics. Women leaders are containers of anxieties, while they act out defense mechanisms, such as splitting, projection, projective identification, introjection, idealization, simplification and rationalization. Splitting seems to be important in terms of categories such as mother/professional, mother/daughter, women/men leaders and White/Black women leaders. Women leaders further have introjected the roles of their mothers and female family members from their childhood. They do not embrace the full authority and agency of their leadership, and 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1606-1633
Number of pages28
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Family roles
  • Higher education
  • Professional roles
  • Role confusion
  • South Africa
  • Women leader
  • Workplace

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Education


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