Abstract The aim of the article is to explore the psychic life of executive women under neoliberalism using psychosocial approaches. The article shows how, despite enduring unfair treatment and access to opportunities, many executive women remain emotionally invested in upholding the neoliberal ideal that if one perseveres, one shall be successful, regardless of gender.

Drawing on psychosocial approaches, we explore how the accounts given by some executive women of repudiation, as denying gender inequality, and individualization, as subjects completely agentic, are underpinned by the unconscious, intertwined processes of splitting and blaming. Women sometimes split off undesirable aspects of the workplace, which repudiates gender inequality, or blame other women, which individualizes failure and responsibility for change. We explain that splitting and blaming enable some executive women to manage the anxiety evoked from threats to the neoliberal ideal of the workplace. This article thereby makes a contribution to existing postfeminist scholarship by integrating psychosocial approaches to the study of the psychic life of neoliberal executive women, by exploring why they appear unable to engage directly with and redress instances of gender discrimination in the workplace.

Keywords blaming, individualization, neoliberalism, postfeminism, psychic life, psychosocial, repudiation, splitting

Corresponding author: Darren T Baker, Quinn School of Business, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland. Email: darren.baker@ucd.ie

772010 HUM0010.1177/0018726718772010Human RelationsBaker and Kelan research-article2018

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There has been a concern for the dearth of women in senior leadership positions in organizations in recent years (World Economic Forum, 2015, 2016, 2017). This is also the case in accounting and finance where only 18% of senior roles are filled by women (Metcalf and Rolfe, 2009) and the number of women at partner level in big four and medium sized accounting firms remains low at 15% (FRC, 2016). Research in this area has, therefore, tried to understand the reasons for the continued underrepresentation of women in accounting and finance (Metcalf and Rolfe, 2009; PwC, 2013; Zahidi and Ibarra, 2010).

What is often ignored is the psychic life of women under neoliberalism. The burgeon- ing area of research that explores the connections between gender and neoliberalism often does so under the notion of postfeminism, commonly used in the humanities (Gill, 2009, 2015; Gill and Orgad, 2015; Gill et al., 2017; Scharff, 2011, 2012, 2015a, 2015b). Scholarship exploring the intersection between neoliberalism and gender has only recently been introduced into organization studies (Cullen and Murphy, 2017; Gill, 2007b; Gill and Scharff, 2011; Scharff, 2011). A small body of this work has begun to explore what has come to be termed ‘the psychic life’ of neoliberal subjects. This schol- arship primarily draws on discourse analysis to trace the neoliberal self as, for instance, entrepreneurial, anxious, shamed, and as a subject who disarticulates, individualizes and frames others responsible for wider-structural inequalities (Gill, 2009; Scharff, 2015a, 2015c, 2016). The term is drawn specifically from the work of Scharff (2015c), who appropriates it from the seminal text ‘The Psychic Life of Power’ (1997) by Judith Butler. In sum, the term, ‘the psychic life’, is employed in this small body of research to show primarily how neoliberalism constitutes subjects at work.

However, there remain unanswered questions regarding why rational individuals under neoliberalism come to invest in such positions. The connections between ‘the psy- chic life’ and neoliberalism would, thus, be enriched further by exploring the reasons why women sometimes take up positions whereby they, for instance, repudiate, individu- alize and blame others for structural inequalities. On the discursive plane, these patterns seem contradictory but may reflect unconscious needs to manage deeper anxieties evoked from working within highly individualized and demanding neoliberalized work- places. Psychosocial studies provide compelling ideas and methods for tracing some of the deeper ways in which anxiety is unconsciously managed at the subject-level. The work of Melanie Klein (1946) on splitting and blaming is particularly useful in under- standing how individuals manage anxiety through the splitting off of objects into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fragments. However, there has been little use of psychosocial ideas and meth- ods (Fotaki, 2013; Kenny, 2012; Vachhani, 2012), particularly those of Melanie Klein (Fotaki and Hyde, 2014; Menzies, 1960), in organization studies. Psychosocial scholars or ‘cultural psychoanalysts’, as Wetherell (2013) sometimes helpfully refers to them as, provide a unique perspective on how subjectivities are constructed across socio-cultural, discursive and psychological contexts (Gough, 2009; Hollway, 2006). In this way, they provide a more holistic view on the construction of the self by neither reducing the indi- vidual to the social nor the social to the individual (Hollway, 2008; Hollway and Jefferson, 2008).