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Psychoanalytic Business Coaching

Women and power- pitfalls on the way to the top

Although women today are just as well educated and highly qualified as men, they are still underrepresented in German companies. In a European comparison, the proportion of women in management positions is even lower than the European average at around 31%. There are a variety of social, economic and political as well as individual reasons why women are less likely to be involved in higher career levels. But what internal psychological factors or pitfalls can play a role in the fact that they are less likely to be involved in higher career levels than men? Much has already been written about gender-typical socialization and upbringing, images of men and women. Therefore, this article will focus more on some of the internal barriers that can arise when the next career step is imminent. We ask ourselves how some of such inner barriers map out and how such patterns can be passed on. Why is it so difficult to break away from the outdated ideas of parents, and why might a girl fall into the same emotional and concrete traps as her mother? To that end, let’s venture a description of some of the internal barriers that can surface even among successful women in leadership positions.

The perception of success

First, I would like to invite you to do a little exercise: Take a moment and close your eyes for a moment. Now imagine your team or company and think about who is the most successful, who comes next, and so on, until a ranking emerges. This little exercise first targets the differences in terms of success and the accompanying status and higher salary between the individual female colleagues that results from the ranking. So the question is, how did you feel about this exercise? What did you think during this little exercise and what feelings emerge within you?

In the following, we want to point out some pitfalls that Heidi Möller (2005) has already written about and that you may have encountered yourself on your way to a leadership position. We would like to take up some aspects of these as food for thought. In doing so, we are aware that behind all these barriers and differences lies a centuries-long socialization that places deeply internalized, mostly unconscious beliefs and expectations on women – just as it does on men. Knowing that such can also contribute to the consolidation of concepts and role stereotypes, we would like to point out here once again that the processes and inner dynamics described can of course be very different from one individual to another, but are presented here in an exaggerated and somewhat generalized way so that they become more tangible and illustrative.

Success and doubt

Now back to the exercise. Although women actually know that they are entitled to the next career step and that they could certainly fulfill it well – there is certainly no lack of leadership skills here – doubts emerge more frequently among women. For example, one client expressed after this exercise that she had a queasy feeling about comparing herself to the others in terms of success. But thoughts can also arise about whether it is okay to earn more than the others, who are also doing a great job, or the fear of ending up alone. As already mentioned, the ranking shows the differences between the colleagues in your own team in relation to your success. Ms. Jones is perhaps more successful than Mr. Schmith and he in turn is more successful than Ms. Brown, etc. Enduring these (success) differences can be more difficult for women than for men. Whereas men tend to seek out competition and the associated setting of themselves in relation to one another – and have learned this from an early age and practiced it in the schoolyard – women are more likely to get into an inner conflict. Here the question arises, why is it that men and women react so differently in this exercise? But more on that later…

Female aggression and power

To be successful and to be able to climb the career ladder, you not only need to feel good about being different from the others and being able and willing to be more successful, but also a good portion of aggression. Aggression here does not mean wanting to harm or destroy someone, but “to go towards someone, to start, undertake or try something” – this corresponds to the meaning of the Latin verb “aggredi”. While the first, more violent definition is more easily accepted among men, the second conception of aggression often makes it easier for women to become aware of their aggression, to perceive it as belonging to them, and to use it constructively in their own sense. The fantasy that aggressive behavior involves acting like the Roman gladiators, fighting each other and destroying each other in the process, is still superfluous. The idea that people can fight with each other, prevail in the process, and then leave the arena together often does not exist. Unfortunately, women’s openly acted out aggression is still not very socially accepted, so that women still experience expressions of aggression or the need for self-assertion more often as culpable than men. However, aggression is indispensable if one wants to shape one’s life, and thus one’s career, according to one’s own needs.

Competition and rivality

In addition, women often experience it as more difficult to stand out or even be superior to others. Of course, women also compete, but usually more subtly and indirectly. Men have it easier and can compete more openly. One of the reasons for this is that women often associate competition with negative connotations. But competition, as everyone knows, not only stimulates business, it can also be a lot of fun. However, women often confuse competition with rivalry. Whereas competition means racing together to see who can reach the finish line faster, rivalry describes the destructive form associated with belittling, ridiculing or even destroying the other person. Women thus tend to associate competition with the so-called “crab phenomenon.” Here, competition among women is compared to a basket full of crabs. As soon as one of them manages to climb up the wall of the basket, she is used as a ladder by the other crabs, which leads to the fact that in the end all of them fall back into the basket under the load. This confusion and the negative associations associated with it often prevent women from competing with others and holding their own.

Success and envy

But this is where envy can play a role and become a pitfall on the career ladder. As soon as a better job or a higher salary is on the horizon, women tend to fear attracting the envy of others. Envy is always caused by what one does not have and does not possess. So you compare yourself with the other person and find out that he or she is more successful, earns more, is more creative, more intelligent, more charismatic, more hard-working, etc. – you are confronted with your own lack and the associated feelings of inferiority. But envy – cleverly used – can also be a helpful motivator. Instead of pulling each other down like crabs in a basket, this inner tension can also be used as a motivator to achieve or get what the other person has.

The fear of embarrassment

Having reached the top and having received a lot of praise or success, women may also experience feelings of shame. Often behind this is an internalized self-image of modesty that cannot be reconciled with success. To relieve this inner tension, women may tend to relativize their own success or even attribute success to other people. In these cases, for example, one hears statements such as “I was just lucky” or “I can’t blame myself. I couldn’t have done it on my own.”. A simple “thank you, I’m happy too” is heard less often from women for whom success and praise feel coherent.

Oedipus and what he has to do with women and power

Having outlined some pitfalls, in what follows we will look more closely at the process of how such socialization is internalized, how it is passed on, and when and why it is so difficult to break away from expectations and evaluations.

An important role is played by the way we have internalized our parents and how independent we are from these internalized parents. It is not so much about their opinions and cognitive beliefs. Nor so much about the words spoken. If it were just that, then our fears and beliefs wouldn’t run so deep. Rather, it is about soul processes that take place on an unconscious level – that is, have to do with a soul climate and a soul freedom or permission – and influence our behavior as well as our decisions.

Let’s look at the daughter’s individual development and her early interactions with her parents. It should be noted here that the psychodynamics as well as the initial conditions are of course very different. Since the oedipal situation plays an important role in the child’s development, this will be taken up and exemplified on the basis of a possible course:

Initially, the girl is confronted with her mother as primary caregiver in her early years of life – as is the boy. While the boy must detach himself from the mother and identify with the father in order to become a man, the girl – who is more similar to the mother – must not completely distance herself from the mother. Nevertheless, detachment from the mother and a successful Oedipal situation is a significant developmental task that the girl must solve in order to be able to develop her own, female identity. Especially in leadership positions, the acquisition of masculine and feminine connotations – for example, being supportive of employees, but also competitive and assertive – can be advantageous. By detaching herself from the dyadic relationship with the mother and identifying reciprocally with the father, who may also be represented in the mother, the girl can make these qualities her own. At the same time, by detaching herself from the mother and turning to the father, she acquires the abilities to turn curiously to a third party, to assert herself, to perceive different couple constellations as well as varying references, and thus to be able to take different perspectives and to maintain a critical distance from herself. These qualities can also be an advantage in a leadership position.

Successful triangulation would therefore mean being able to move freely between father and mother and to perceive and experience both female and male connotations as belonging to oneself without shame. In order to master this developmental task, the daughter needs a complete, mature triad of father, mother and child, who are perceived as whole, separate objects, who maintain different relationships with each other, who take on different roles, and who have predominantly positive affective connotations.

For the later professional career, this would mean that it is only possible to compete with one’s colleagues and to be assertive without losing the love of the mother. At the same time, the girl can be soft and social without having to fear the loss of her father. So, very succinctly shortened, it is the question of whether the girl was able to grow up, to break away from her parents’ ideas and implicit and explicit expectations, and to develop her own identity. Psychoanalytic business coaching can help to better understand and work through these pitfalls in one’s own professional development against the background of one’s own relationship experiences and socialization conditions. In this way, it can be possible to experience the professional world of competition, power and success as something pleasurable and to master the upcoming career step with confidence.


Julia Perlinger, Coach




Körmendy, K. C. (2014). Weibliche Identität und Macht. Einige psychoanalytische Perspektiven zu Frauen in Führungspositionen. Psychoanalyse im Widerspruch, 51, 9-25.

Möller, H. (2005) Stolpersteine weiblicher Karrieren. Was Frauen hindert, erfolgreich zu sein. Organisationberatung Supervision Coaching. 12(4), 333-343. doi.: 10.1007/s11613-005-0120-8