Should coaching be gendered?

Published 10 years ago

Is the experience of coaching women different to coaching men? I posed this question at my coaching book club, which meets regularly for two hours of zesty discussion. We are all women.

The question sparked a lively exchange. Some of us had recently read Barsh and Cranston’s How Remarkable Women Lead. Some argued that the points made could equally apply to men.

I thought about the clients I have coached. Certainly men and women bring common issues to their sessions: self-esteem, presence, being grounded under stress, delegating, networking, managing upwards, etc.


So what have I noticed that is different?

Some women clients of mine want to get out of what is called the ‘velvet ghetto’, the ‘pink collar’ jobs for women in areas considered to be gendered: human resources, public relations and marketing. They want core business jobs that show their delivery on the bottom line. I have only had one male client trying to make this switch.

Recently, I attended a briefing in the financial services industry. The Manco was indeed a MAN-committee! Fourteen of the 15 members were men; the lone woman was the director of human resources.

But progress is being made. Career guidance at my convent school proposed social work and teaching prior to our becoming stay-at-home mothers.


Most of my women clients (with or without children) take on more household responsibility and struggle more with the work-life balance. In her keynote address at the launch of FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, Cheryl Carolus said: “Superman for women is a con job. Superman has a mother and never worries about matching socks both coming out of the washing machine, or what’s for dinner and whether there’s enough cat food.”

One of my black women clients sits on a board that has only two women members. One of her challenges was how to engage with the men during the breaks. She was angry: “The chairperson could only think of saying, ‘I like your shoes’. I realized that none of the men on the board have wives that work; they have ‘charity wives’. They can’t relate to us.”

I am not saying that all men are like this, and there certainly are ‘charity wives’ who are hard-working philanthropists. But our history of patriarchy leaves all of us, women and men, with a legacy that needs to be addressed alongside the legacy of race.

One black woman COO arrived at her new job. Her welcome from the CEO (a black man) included a description of how the previous incumbent (a woman) had failed. He had given her two days’ notice to prepare an important document for submission to the board. He had approved six weeks’ leave for her most senior direct report (a black man) at a critical time when compliance reporting was due. That same report had been on the shortlist for the COO position and was rumored to be the CEO’s preferred candidate. No wonder she felt that she was being set up to fail.


In her chapter, ‘Gender Issues in Business Coaching’ (Passmore, 2013), Sunny Stout-Rostron reviews Lerato Motsoaledi’s 2009 doctoral thesis, Executive Coaching in Diversity.

“Motsoaledi studied issues of male insubordination to female authority, finding that in several instances males refused to accept it, projecting in-adequacies on to women leaders and using aggression as a tool to dominate them. Although the women managers wielded power as individuals, they still had to deal with being a member of a subordinate group expected to comply with traditional patriarchal roles,” Stout-Rostron notes. Motsoaledi argues that being black as well as being a woman adds another layer of challenge that white women do not experience.

Research indicates that companies with more women in senior management have better results; others note that better, more forward-thinking firms hire more women.

In 1973, Samora Machel, the late president of Mozambique, said: “The emancipation of women is not an act of charity, or humanitarianism. The liberation of women is a fundamental necessity.”


Carolus, at the launch of this publication, noted, “Let us be there for our men folk – to help them on their way to the joys of freedom from sexism. For in the same manner that racism dehumanized black and white, sexism diminishes the potential of both men and women. Let us break the culture of silence we sometimes impose on ourselves.”

It is not easy. I have known of women executives who assert their authority so fiercely that when I have coached their male direct reports, loss of self-esteem is identified as an issue.

Moving forward requires commitment and compassion. I will share with you what has worked with my clients. Send me your experiences and concerns: [email protected]