The Impact of Gender

The Impact of Gender

The impact of gender in successful coaching relationships, is it a factor?

What is the range of leadership development challenges you’ve experienced as a coach recently, and does the nature of the invitation change depending on whether the client is male or female?

Ian: The range is huge. Mostly the requests are to coach a cohort as part of a programme of leadership development, possibly linked to a management standard but almost certainly coinciding with a major tipping point in the evolution of the organisation like a takeover, a fresh strategy or perhaps change at the top. There are also occasions when we’re asked to coach a particular individual with a challenge, like a rising star or a leader dealing with a unique set of circumstances.


The nature of invitation doesn’t really change based on gender. Most cases are referred via HR departments where there is normally a strong female/male gender bias (as much as 80/20 in some sectors): unless well-managed, this could influence how coaches and coachees are paired.


Generally, female clients seem more comfortable appreciating people- centric change practices. But bias according to gender could be an issue to be addressed during the coaching. It shouldn’t adversely influence the procurement process, setup or programme management.


Kate: You tend to see themes and trends depending on the level of leadership you are working with, and the industries they are working in. However, the nature of requests can be extremely varied.


We coach leaders usually as part of a broader strategic leadership and culture development project; therefore many of the strategic objectives for the coaching will be shared. But within that, each leader will set and work towards their own personal goals – and they can range from developing their confidence, communication and delegation to helping them see the bigger picture and sometimes reaching difficult decisions. Both men and women often have things going on at home that are affecting their personal wellbeing, resilience and performance.


On reflection, the nature of the requests doesn’t tend to be all that different for men and women. However, men are much more likely to seek coaching with a specific purpose or outcome in mind, whereas in my experience, women are more likely to seek coaching for more holistic reasons: they may not have a specific outcome in mind initially, but just feel it would be helpful.


I see a lot of imposter syndrome, mainly in some of the most talented, competent and successful leaders you can imagine, and gender is not a factor here. Both men and women suffer from imposterism equally – but women are more likely to admit it!

What are the likely male-to-female coachee ratios at senior levels?

Ian: Within more traditional sectors and heavy industry I’d say, based on recent experience, that there’s still a 70/30 or so bias towards men at senior executive level. But this completely changes in agencies, digital organisations, education, health, the civil service and some professional services sectors where it’s closer to 50/50 or sometimes female-dominated. However, there are more female than male coaches. It’s an interesting trend and possibly a reflection of women leading the gig economy. I’d certainly expect to see a lot of thought given to supporting true diversity and inclusion when considering the coaching mix, whatever the focus of the programme.


Kate: I would say that about 80% of our current coachees are men. But that’s mainly down to the industry sectors we are currently working in. I’m afraid there is always a higher percentage of men occupying senior executive posts in the majority of organisations we work with, yet it seems to be getting more evenly distributed in tech and healthcare. Most clients are now making genuine and concerted efforts to change this, which is good to see.

Do you find that leaders prefer to be coached by their own gender?

Ian: Hard to generalise. People are complex and their motives more so. Some will want to be challenged and may consider that a coach of a different gender will add to their learning curve. Others may prefer more support and may consider that this can be offered by someone with similar characteristics and whom can more readily empathise with their lived experience. Others will want an easier ride! Whichever way, expression of a preference is the root into some interesting development territory. Whether coachees perceive that someone of the gender with which they identify will be more or less indulgent is a moot point. It does highlight the importance of the programme team when making decisions about matching coaches to coachees to ensure the right support/challenge ratios.


As professional coaches, our role is heavily reliant on self-awareness, understanding our personal brand and unique qualities. We’re not amorphous blobs of beige projecting neutrality or rainbows of colour, relentlessly perfect. CPD is vital, as is being part of a team able to maintain critical objectivity and balance, and able to offer clients what they need to make the most of their coaching relationships. Gender shouldn’t be a big factor. But we’re realists. A diverse and inclusive coaching team offering options across the support and challenge spectrum is a critical part of coaching and a sign of a healthy practice.


Kate: I’m so glad this question came up. In my experience, men often prefer to be coached by a woman, something which many people seem surprised about. I have asked coachees why this is the case and I’m told that men find it easier to open up and be honest with a female coach, more able to share their vulnerabilities. I often wonder if, on some level, they expect to receive less challenge from a woman coach, but I’m not sure this is what they get.

What’s most important is that the right chemistry and fit exists between coach and coachee, regardless of gender or other characteristics. The success of any coaching intervention is directly proportionate to the quality of the relationship between coach and coachee. Sometimes it fits well and other times it doesn’t.

What does a typical coaching relationship look like?

Kate: I believe each coaching relationship is completely unique; however, there are some typical characteristics of successful coaching relationships regardless of gender, and they are trust, equality, openness and respect. The relationship is purposeful, and as a coach you are there to hold space for your coachee while remaining flexible and adaptable to ensure they get what they need from the coaching. Effective contracting is key here. It is hugely important to ensure all parties are clear on the expectations, desired outcomes and boundaries of the relationship. This increases the likelihood of commitment and success.


The coaching relationship is a safe space for leaders to exclusively focus on their development; a place where they can go to their ‘learning edge’ while being supported and challenged in equal measure. Leaders will often need to express and work through difficult and/or uncomfortable issues, and they might need to really ‘eyeball’ themselves at times. If the coaching relationship isn’t strong, a leader won’t go there, and you end up with superficial development that doesn’t truly evoke change or transformation.


Ian: Regardless of the logistical mechanics, there needs to be contracted clarity about:


  • a. goals and milestones;
  • b. a context and wider support programme, because coaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum;
  • c. boundaries,respect andways of working;
  • d. andreviewinfrastructureandprogressupdates.


There are clearly other nuances harder to define, like chemistry, but these are the core foundations upon which a productive coaching relationship is built.

Do you believe there’s any difference to the way men and women coach, and respond to coaching?

Kate: I’m not sure that gender is a factor when it comes to coaching styles. I think this is more down to the unique nature and characteristics of the coach. I’ve been coached by both men and women and have trained both as coaches and I can’t say I’ve noticed any trends.


In terms of response to coaching, when we go into organisations to deliver large-scale leadership development programmes, I have noticed that the men seem more cynical at first! They are far more likely to ask if there’s some sort of hidden agenda and if things are going to be ‘fed back’ to the executive or HR team; perhaps the women feel the same, but they rarely articulate it. Once we get established in the coaching relationship, following our contracting session, it’s brilliant to see the initial cynicism fall away and leaders making the most of the coaching experience.


Ian: No, not really. You might as well ask whether men and women paint or cook, build or teach differently. There are some nuances in how men and women typically present when working through the range of emotions that coaching inevitably unleashes, but it’s more subtle than the clichés imply.


Much of a coachee’s attitude to the coaching relationship depends upon the setup, selection and introduction processes and the way the organisation has sold the need. We prefer to focus on skills, attributes and experience when pairing coaches and coachees.


With regard to how coachees respond to coaching based on gender, again I believe the relationship between a coach and coachee is as unique as the sum of their experiences. While professional good practice and a coaching system will guide relationships, part of the joy of coaching is taking and travelling the development path that’s best suited to the individual and their needs, adapting process and behaviour along the way.

In light of the above, has coaching changed during the pandemic and has gender played much of a part?

Kate and Ian: We work with national clients, so we’ve always delivered the bulk of our coaching remotely. Obviously this has increased dramatically over recent months.


As the typical working day has encroached on private time, both the men and women that we coach, where they have families, report that they have invariably become more involved in managing home and work life together. This certainly affected women more than men at first, but we believe that it advanced the cause of shared parenting, as well as gender equality at work.


While many coachees with families had to make the most of the chance to spend more time as a family, it is also clear that they highly valued the opportunity to take time out, step back and work through issues, decisions and opportunities with someone impartial who, most importantly, is not working in the business or with a member of their household.


Coaching helps bring fresh perspectives and unlocks different ways of thinking about important subjects. Ultimately senior leadership roles can be very lonely: there’s often few people you can turn to and have an honest and frank conversation with. This has been exacerbated by limited contact in person. Under these circumstances especially, coaching relationships are appreciated.


Loneliness has been accentuated by the pandemic. This has certainly highlighted leadership deficits where leadership style is based on proximity, presenteeism and directive management. Flexible, listening, responsive, open-minded and objectives-based leadership styles are thriving.


When working remotely, almost every interaction is ‘transactional’. If the phone rings, someone wants something from you. There are few moments for transformational discussion, for the relationship- building niceties. In this environment, many coaching relationships have come into their own.


The pandemic may have eroded some of the gendered coaching clichés. Organisations are recognising the importance of compassionate and people-centric leadership and cultures. Command and control and number-crunching performance management simply doesn’t cut it any longer.


These trends won’t end when the pandemic does. Blended working is here to stay and smart working has opened up the diversity and depth of the talent market. Quality coaching relationships will undoubtedly become more important than ever as leadership and the nature of work continues to evolve, for both men and women. Organisations increasingly need to wake up to this reality, and coaches and coachees alike need to be prepared to continue to evolve to meet this challenge.


Kate will be expanding on and delivering a talk on this topic on 9 March, 2022. You can read more about Kate and Ian’s work by following the Mosaic blog, picking up a copy of one of Ian’s books – which explore the nature of leadership in many organisational contexts – or reading his HR Fixer column in People Management magazine.


We’ve adopted Ian’s #CoachingConversations format for the above piece. Throughout the pandemic Ian has run a series of events where he assembles coaches, mentors and HR professionals from around the globe to debate a critical, people-related organisational change topic. The format asks the group to suggest a burning question about the topic that they would like their virtually assembled colleagues to answer. They submit this independently. Then they answer all of the questions alone and Ian sculpts a thought piece based on the output. The aim is to compare and contrast while avoiding group think.

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