Coaching Techniques

Coaching with Gender Sensitivity: Evidence-Based Insights from Cutting-Edge Research

Gender sensitivity is the ability to acknowledge that inequality exists, think deeply about how gender influences people and their lives, and correct imbalance.

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This blog and podcast episode are designed to highlight research and recent studies, offering insights for coaching practitioners who are interested in going deeper – or to inspire coaches who are early in their careers with the depth of coaching as a profession. If you're passionate about the science and impact of coaching, you're in the right place to explore some more advanced aspects of the field.

Coaching with Gender Sensitivity: Evidence-Based Insights from Cutting-Edge Research

Becoming an effective coach, especially in a corporate or organizational setting, means understanding the tools and strategies for working with people who come from many different experiences.

Gender sensitivity is the ability to acknowledge that inequality exists, think deeply about how gender influences people and their lives, and, in some cases, to take action to correct imbalances.

Understanding how to approach this topic can significantly impact the success of professional coaching interventions and contribute to a more inclusive environment.

In a recent session hosted by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) Coaching Science Community of Practice, Dr. Christine Vitzthum, one of the few MCC-level coaches in Germany, shared her insights on this subject based on her research conducted at Oxford. 

Participating in ICF Communities of Practice offers the opportunity to engage with experts worldwide, gaining diverse perspectives on coaching practices in different cultural settings. 

Here, we will delve into some of the key takeaways and explore how aspiring coaches can apply these lessons.

Understanding Cultural Context

One of the primary points emphasized by Dr. Vitzthum is the importance of cultural competency. 

Cultural competence plays a significant role in how issues are understood and addressed. 

Coaches must adapt their strategies to the specific challenges faced by individuals within the society, organization or group they’re working within.

To illustrate the cultural context, consider the gender pay gap: in Germany, it stands at 18%, the highest in the EU, while in the US, it's around 16%. 

(This information comes from a qualitative study conducted in Germany—a country still grappling with gender diversity challenges due to traditional societal norms.)

Such statistics are vital for understanding cultural context and framing conversations about gender diversity.

Moving Beyond the Binary

Dr. Vitzthum's research critically critiques the binary framing of gender issues, such as the disproportionate focus on advancing women into leadership roles. This narrow approach fails to address the broader, intersectional aspects of diversity.

A one-size-fits-all coaching method is insufficient as gender variance is broad and the issues are complex. Merely coaching women for leadership roles without addressing the structural challenges within organizations won't solve the underlying issues of representation or homogeneity.

Dr. Vitzthum calls for a broader, more holistic approach in coaching. This includes creating feedback loops and interventions that consider all individuals within a system, promoting inclusivity from the outset and addressing biases more comprehensively.

Gender Sensitivity Education

Aspiring coaches should invest in continuing education programs that provide training on the social and cultural constructions of gender. 

Understanding intersectionality—the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender—is essential for addressing the unique challenges faced by people everywhere.

Coaches must distinguish between individual and systemic gender-related challenges. 

Effective coaching requires a nuanced understanding of the client's environment, including their networks, relational systems, and the influences within these systems. This comprehensive view helps coaches tailor their strategies to support the client's unique needs.

Coaching Stance and Advocacy

Coaches usually need to stay neutral, but supporting gender diversity actively can be very effective.

An interesting finding that came out of Dr. Vitzthum’s work is that many of the women coaches represented in the study chose to become coaches due to negative personal experiences in corporate roles. They left those roles to become coaches to impact the issue as a coach outside the system.

Many coaches choose to work in a given space due to personal experience and moral outrage can be a wonderful motivator. Yet, it is essential that as coaches we take the time to understand the impact of our own story on our capacity to keep our agenda to the side as a coach. 

Part of this reflection is being mindful of power dynamics wherein the coach takes the time to evaluate their positionality juxtaposed against the client who has skin in the game as an employee, and stakeholders. Coaches should be aware of any hidden agenda of all parties, including their own. Are we facilitating change or perpetuating our own or an organization’s agenda? 

Coaches need to understand their stakeholders at the beginning of any engagement. Since organizational stakeholders often have a limited understanding of coaching, coaches must ensure there is a match between their approach and the organization's expectations and goals.

As a best practice, coaching contracts should incorporate time for reflection, not just in one-on-one sessions but also organizationally, to illuminate structural issues and foster organizational growth and learning. This strategic approach, supported by stakeholders, can lead to transformative changes and enhance gender diversity within organizations.

Moreover, understanding the different organizational layers affected by coaching is key to understanding how effective an outcome will be. Gender diversity efforts often falter at the middle management level. Yet, effective change throughout the entire organization requires the full support of middle managers.

Self-Reflection and Ethical Considerations

From an ethical standpoint, coaches should carefully consider the hiring process they engage in, especially in the realm of gender sensitivity. It's crucial to have specialized training to be effective, yet coaches are often selected based on referrals rather than on qualifications or a good fit between coach and client.

The language used in contracts and program descriptions is also critical. According to best practices in DEI and coaching, the title of a coaching program should not suggest a lack of skills—for example, suggesting that "leadership development is needed because someone is unqualified," like in "leadership development for women." Such language can inadvertently reinforce stereotypes.

Self-reflection is crucial for coaches specializing in gender sensitivity. They need to understand their own biases and how their personal experiences influence their coaching. Recognizing power dynamics and adhering to ethical standards is key to creating real change, not just reinforcing old patterns.

Good coaching acknowledges the client's social and professional environments and openly tackles systemic problems. 

Research indicates that bringing a gender-sensitive lens to our coaching sessions also requires accounting for the client’s environment. This looks like taking the time to understand the client within their individual networks, relational systems, and the points of influence within these systems, especially people and places that contribute to the development of the client or hinder their progress.

Another aspect central to the environment of the client is understanding the relationship between belonging and uniqueness, which involves cultivating a sense of belonging while encouraging individual perspectives. This balances the impulse to assimilate alongside the need to hold on to one’s identity. 

Uniqueness is a crucial concept in gender diversity. A common example is seeing women try to assimilate and adapt the behavior and traits of their male counterparts that are prevalent in a given work culture. Assertiveness is a topic that pops up often in coaching. Depending on the culture and environment of the client, assertiveness is something that can be seen differently across gender divides and can lead to bias depending on who is enacting the behavior.

When coaches are carefully selected and well-trained to consider clients from an intersectional perspective, coaching becomes a powerful means for learning and growth.

Research came directly from the ICF Coaching Science Community of Practice, Coaching with Gender Sensitivity Video (2023).

Interested in going deeper into professional coaching?

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