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More women in executive positions

Defense and resistance in change processes using the example of the change to equal quotas for women in management positions.

In terms of competence, women have long been on equal footing with men in professional terms; this is no longer disputed today. A study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) asked almost 13,000 companies whether they would benefit from a higher proportion of women in management positions and came to the conclusion that companies score highly in the areas of employee retention, creativity and innovation as a result of a gender balance. In my article, I would like to examine the question of why the change to more women in leadership positions, which is seen as positive, is taking place very slowly. I identify leadership as an important instrument for change, raising awareness of unconscious processes, and envisioning a workplace that enriches both genders as important steering tools.

In 2015, only 17 of the 195 independent countries in the world are ruled by women. Globally, women are entitled to 22 percent of parliamentary seats. When it comes to women in leadership positions, the picture is no better. In 2015, only 5 percent of CEOs from the world’s 500 largest publicly traded companies were women. In the U.S., women held 25 percent of senior executive positions in the same year, and 20 percent in Europe (Sandberg, 2015).

Theunert (2014) describes the following phenomenon in the journal Organizational Development in an article on the topic of equality in organizations entitled “Invisible brakemen”: “The will on the boards of directors and in upper management to promote women, who are as capable as they are ambitious is there, corresponding mentoring programs are running at full speed, and the “pipeline” in middle management is also often full of female talent. And yet, in the end, hardly any women ever make it all the way to the top…” and further “if nothing moves despite full throttle, then the assumption is that idling has been put in.

If we are in favor of change, but the change still does not succeed, then my professional experience is that unconscious resistance and defense mechanisms are at work in a company. What could these unconscious factors be and how do you deal with them in a change process?

Leadership as a success factor

A success-determining factor in change processes are the leaders who implement, accompany and guide change. Leadership has the task of showing the way and taking on board employees’ fears, projections, but also unconscious enactements or conflicts and creating a framework for discussion. In addition to emotions that are generally considered unpleasant (such as fear, uncertainty, disappointment), pleasant emotions are an important incentive in the change process to take on the effort of the journey. Here, it is the task of leadership to provide a good vision for the desired outcome in order to give orientation.

In companies, equal opportunity commissioners and diversity officers usually lead equal opportunities. In the 30 DAX companies, with one exception, women take care of diversity management on a full-time basis (Köppel, 2015). There is a danger here that the already existing life plan, with the existing values on work and family, is used as a template and changes are adapted to this, i.e. merely reproduced. It would be advisable not to structurally anchor the change process internally in HR, but to guide the changes through external consultants. They could act much more freely. They would be more likely to have the position and courage to make themselves unpopular and to challenge existing norms and the normality of male work biographies, values, attitudes and rules of the game.

Thus, this change is not just about “minor adjustments” to an existing system, but a transformation of the system. In order to achieve gender equality, role fixations would have to be broken down, affecting behavior, communication, as well as feelings and value systems. But sticking to the “role” man / woman also gives security and simplifies communication. A change can trigger fears, which lead to the desire to keep the old behavior patterns. This is how resistance arises. Most of the time we are not really aware of the resistance and also of many fears.

Issues that hold women back from fighting for their professional success:

Perfectionism: “While society is changing, the elusive goal of being the good girl is still alive and well” (Virtue, 2011). A perfectionist female leader “limits … [her] strategic thinking and risk taking” (Frankel, Levitt, Murray, Greenberg, & Angus, 2006). When she makes unavoidable mistakes, she apologizes instead of acknowledging the error, re-strategizing, and moving on.

  • Negative connotations of power and lack of competition: according to Möller in (Giernalczyk & Lohmer, 2012), the discourse about women as better leaders also threatens to become secondary stigma. This concept reinforces the female role expectation that female leadership behavior is more empathetic and shows more social competence. But overly empathic behavior discourages women from exercising power. When it comes to achieving equality, it’s about understanding power as empowerment for real change.
  • Loneliness: being successful means being superior to the other person. This creates a distance from other women and men that is difficult for many leaders to endure. Due to socialization, men develop their identity primarily by seeking to distinguish themselves from others, while many women identify more through similarity and attachment.

Moreover, women who aspire to powerful positions are still often seen as too smart or too successful, and thus risk losing affection and being excluded (Bettencourt, Dill, Greathouse, Charlton, & Mulholland, 1997). In this regard, there is a remarkable study in which two groups of students* are each given a resume to read and evaluate. In both cases it is the (real) CV of Heidi Roizin, a successful venture capitalist. One group of students receives the CV under the name Heidi, while the version for the other group changes the name to Howard. Both CVs, Heidi’s and Howard’s, are rated the same by the test persons from a professional point of view. However, all students rated Howard as a good guy, a nice colleague, with whom they would also go out for a beer once in a while. While Heidi was rated as rather unsympathetic, career-oriented and selfish (McGinn & Tempest, 2009).

But it takes two to make a relationship work. What unconscious motives might cause men to boycott change toward greater gender equality?

A large proportion of men agree in principle that women are discriminated against and that gender equality policies should take place, but they feel it does not affect them. They answer exemplarily “In principle, one can only see it positively”, but at the same time they refuse to make their own contribution to equality (Höyng & Puchert, 1998). Collective excuses are then “women are the ones who have children”. Again, if I want something in principle but do not act on it, then unconscious resistance may be at play.

Male gender roles are largely defined by the avoidance of female feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Helplessness, vulnerability, dependency, lack of personal influence, lack of security, etc., are feeling responses that are stereotypically not associated with traditional masculinity (Kierski & Blazina, 2010). And these feelings are uncomfortable and can be anxiety-provoking. For this reason, they are readily held in the unconscious in order to remain productive and capable of action. Projection onto others can also be used to distance oneself from thoughts and behaviors that are perceived as not masculine. Möller (2013) describes that what is warded off in organizations, all the neediness, insecurity, and fear, the economic threat, and the increased work pressure, is reflected in the sensitivity of the few women in leadership positions. As a projective identification, the rejection of the organization is represented in the soul life of the women leaders as their own insufficiency, in constant self-doubt and doubts about competence.

Both sexes can learn from each other

Gender roles are in constant change. Men are increasingly learning what is understood by “female” leadership. They lead more empathetically and, especially in times of a shortage of skilled workers, are dependent on taking care of their employees more like a “good mother”. More and more managers are learning coaching skills in order to promote the personalities of their highly skilled employees and thus improve the cooperation, satisfaction and resilience of everyone. Women want to do justice to their careers, creativity and performance. Many men no longer want to see their children only on weekends. Families want to combine professional success and family life and understand that emancipation is linked to social vision.

It’s time to think about unconscious brakes and to make change possible

This societal and thus also organizational change will only succeed if it is recognized as a challenging and lengthy change project. This includes the involvement of external consultants. The consultants’ task is to create a space in which difficult feelings can be discussed just as much as attractive goals of a changed professional world. This space consists very concretely in the time window, the organization and moderation of the meeting. But also metaphorically in the creation of a space in which feelings can be professionally absorbed and thus ideas can be creatively developed. Here, employees might become aware of the costs of gender inequality, the consequences that would affect them personally in the event that change does not occur. Most importantly, however, in many cases, they themselves will consciously feel some discomfort with existing conditions. At the same time, those involved should be shown a perspective, such as the hope for the development of a humanly just, appreciative workplace for both men and women, which will spur the individual development of both sexes.


M. Sc. Eva Weisse, Coach, dyanMIND


Bettencourt, B. A., Dill, K. E., Greathouse, S. A., Charlton, K., & Mulholland, A. (1997). Evaluations of ingroup and outgroup members: The role of category-based expectancy violation. Journal of experimental social psychology, 33(3), 244-275. 

Frankel, Z. e., Levitt, H. M., Murray, D. M., Greenberg, L. S., & Angus, L. (2006). Assessing silent processes in psychotherapy: An empirically derived categorization system and sampling strategy.

Giernalczyk, T., & Lohmer, M. (Eds.). (2012). Das Unbewusste im Unternehmen. Psychodynamik von Führung, Beratung und Change Management. Stuttgart: Schäffer-Poeschel.

Höyng, S., & Puchert, R. (1998). Die Verhinderung der beruflichen Gleichstellung. Männliche Verhaltensweisen und männerbündische Kultur, Bielefeld.

Kierski, W., & Blazina, C. (2010). The male fear of the feminine and its effects on counseling and psychotherapy. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 17(2), 155-172.

Köppel, P. (2015). Diversity Management in Deutschland: Benchmark 2014. Strategie oder Alibi. In: Synergy Consult. http://www. synergyconsult. de/pdf/Benchmark_DM_14. pdf ….

McGinn, K., & Tempest, N. (2009). Heidi Roizen. Harvard Business School Case Study# 9–800–228. In: Harvard Business School Publishing Boston, MA.

Sandberg, S. (2015). Lean in-Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In: SAGE Publications Sage India: New Delhi, India.

Tugend, A. (2011). Better by mistake: The unexpected benefits of being wrong: Penguin.