How Coaching Women Is Different

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for what is coaching.jpgNow, the first thing I need to say here is what I’m NOT saying. I’m NOT saying that “women are different.” (BTW, why doesn’t anyone ever say that “men are different”?)

Men and women are not different. Our expectations of men and women are different.

And it’s those expectations that create the context (eg, the “unwritten rules“) for women in the workforce. We can’t coach women to fulfill their potential and their ambition unless we understand that it’s still not a level playing field out there. We live in a culture where power still defaults to the men in the room–it’s subtle, but true.

Last time, I wrote about the top 10 reasons why coaching works for women in the corporate workplace, prompted by McKinsey & Company’s new report about women in the US economy. Co-author Joanna Barsh has recommended coaching as a strategy to help women move up out of middle management, where so many women get stuck.

Barsh, a director in McKinsey’s New York office, rightly turns our attention from top-down corporate initiatives to the kind of on-the-ground professional development that individual women can achieve when they work with a personal coach.

After seven years as a coach, here’s what I know is different about effectively coaching women:

1. Actually, it IS personal.

It’s not women who were traditionally defined as the family “breadwinner.” Therefore, work has not been prescribed for them as “bringing home the bacon.” Work isn’t just a function or a game for them; it’s a meaningful expression of a life, a self. That connection needs to be taken into account during any significant career development process.

2. Beware perfectionism.

Someone once asked me in a Q-and-A session about holding my clients accountable. I had to laugh. I have the opposite challenge. Women, positioned as “the other” (as in “women are different” and “the opposite sex”), are more highly and routinely scrutinized. They have a much narrower margin for error. The result: a drive to perfectionism. I don’t need to hold my clients’ feet to the fire; I need to help them let go of a debilitating defense mechanism.

3. A little goes a long way.

No need to use a sledgehammer. Women are pretty open to acknowledging what’s going on and their contribution to it. Especially when they understand that they and their behaviors are enmeshed in a larger system. For example, why don’t women “ask for it”? It’s not because they are shy, or weak, or unequipped–although that’s what women are told. It’s because they’re smart. They know that there is a price to pay for being an assertive woman. Learning how to negotiate that double-bind with both a sense of power and calculated risk is a game-changer.

4. Ambivalence does not equal resistance.

Coaches are always on the lookout for points of resistance, because they are powerful levers of change. Without the burden of having to be dominant and declaratory, women have the luxury to consider and reconsider. This apparent ambivalence must not be mistaken as resistance. It’s simply good sense.

5. It’s still a man’s world.

Enough said.

Next time: McKinsey director Joanna Barsh talks about women, ambition, and coaching.

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