Is a Different Coaching Approach Necessary for Women?
“How is coaching women different from coaching men?” asked the interviewer talking with me for a recent publication. It got me thinking about some of the research out there on women and leadership. Women are still underrepresented. They make up 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 8 percent of top leadership positions. Part of the reason that women are underrepresented in leadership positions involves the mismatch between qualities traditionally associated with leaders like assertiveness, confidence, and coming across as an authority figure and the qualities traditionally associated with women such as being nice, friendly and interpersonally sensitive. Women in leadership face barriers that men don’t – sometimes within the company and also in general.
This mismatch of what we expect from male versus female leaders can cause much consternation for women. They sometimes feel like the very same behavior they might display isn’t acceptable or may cause a stir while their male counterparts can show the same actions and it’s totally accepted. Authoritative, decisive and assertive behaviors that people link with leadership are not typically seen as attractive in women. For example, in the last presidential election when Hillary Clinton ran for her party’s nomination, the slogan “Life’s a Bitch, don’t vote for one” went viral. When Carly Fiorina became the head of Hewlett-Packard, she made the comment that she hoped that everyone could see that the “glass ceiling” no longer exists. Years later in her memoir, she confessed that it wasn’t true and gave many examples of sexism such as being called a “bimbo” and a “bitch.” (Ely, Robin and Rhode, Deborah, Women & Leadership: Defining the Challenges, HBR Press, 2010). A female colleague of mine who is a very capable and successful leader was once told by a former boss that “your husband must have brass testicles or none at all to put up with you.”
The gap between how many see leaders and the attributes expected from women causes many females at the top to feel isolated. Coaching an executive woman that feels she can’t be herself or that she has to walk on eggshells not to offend is different from coaching male executives. It’s no wonder that more women than men suffer from “the impostor syndrome.” The impostor syndrome is the feeling that you don’t deserve to be where you are in life and if others found out who you really are, they would know that you didn’t deserve to be recognized or in the position you are in.
In summary, executive coaching is often seen as a “gender-neutral” process. The environment for men and women executives may be different; coaching needs to adapt to the unique organizational realities that many women face as they build their careers.