Original Research

‘You have to keep your head on your shoulders’: A systems psychodynamic perspective on women leaders

Claude-Helene Mayer, Louise Tonelli, Rudolf M. Oosthuizen, Sabie Surtee
SA Journal of Industrial Psychology | Vol 44 | a1424 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v44i0.1424 | © 2018 Claude-Helene Mayer, Louise Tonelli, Rudolf M. Oosthuizen, Sabie Surtee | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 29 November 2016 | Published: 19 March 2018

About the author(s)

Claude-Helene Mayer, Department of Management, Rhodes University, South Africa; Institut für Therapeutische Kommunikation und Sprachgebrauch, Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder)
Louise Tonelli, Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, University of South Africa, South Africa
Rudolf M. Oosthuizen, Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, University of South Africa, South Africa
Sabie Surtee, Higher Education Resource Services South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa


Background:Women leaders within Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in South Africa have increased in numbers over the past years and they have changed the dynamics in these institutions. Yet, it is a subject that has hardly been explored from the perspective of women leaders.

Aim:The aim of this study is to explore the experiences of women leaders in HEIs from a systems psychodynamic perspective using the conflict, identity, boundaries, authority, roles, task (CIBART) model, a well-researched model to analyse systems psychodynamics and to gain a deeper understanding of (un)conscious dynamics within organisations.

Methods:This qualitative study is based on Dilthey‘s modern hermeneutics. Interviews were conducted with 23 women leaders from the Higher Education Resource Services South Africa, network across 8 HEIs. Observations were conducted in one organisation to support the data analysis and interpretation. Data were analysed through content analysis.

Findings:Findings show that women leaders re-evaluate and reconstruct themselves constantly within organisations. This continuous re-evaluation and reconstruction become visible through the constructs of the CIBART model. The findings reveal deeper insights into systems psychodynamics, which considers anxiety within the system where women leaders seem to contain such anxiety by mobilising specific defence mechanisms. Certain diversity markers, such as race, gender, mother tongue, position within the organisation and generational belonging play a role in creating the dynamics. Women leaders’ experience of de-authorisation and role confusion impacts significantly on women leadership and their action towards ownership.

Practical implications: The study provides new, valuable and context-specific insights into women leadership seen through the lens of the CIBART model, highlighting unconscious dynamics that need practical attention in the HEIs to empower women leaders for gender-specific leadership training.

Originality or value: Findings provide a foundation for future research on women leaders and applied solutions to empower women leaders, whilst reducing anxiety within the system. The study provides complex insights, which should create increasing awareness in women leaders towards being containers of anxiety and creating new ways of empowered women leadership.


systems psychodynamic perspective; CIBART model; anxiety; containers; women leaders; higher education; South Africa


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Crossref Citations

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Victor Penda, Sonya Dineva
Psychodynamic Practice  first page: 1  year: 2024  
doi: 10.1080/14753634.2024.2348532