Coaching and the gender gap

Although notions and practices of equality may be desirable in the workplace, one-to-one relationships are often informed by gender differences. Naturally, this can have an impact on coaching, where gender-specific approaches are becoming more common.

For example, the concept of coaching for women returners is being accepted by banking and legal firms in the once exclusively-male bastion of the City of London. On the other hand, Cambridgeshire policemen were last year offered male-specific personal development training to help them recognise the impact of their gender on their style of work.

Separate learning

It is often appropriate for the sexes to learn separately, says one pioneer of the single-gender approach and chief executive of the Springboard personal development consultancy, Jenny Daisley.

“The dynamics of a mixed group in discussion are fascinating,” she says.

“When listening, women will nod in understanding but not necessarily in agreement. Men remain still or silent and nod only to agree. In actual discussion, women may become offended by men’s silence, while men ‘pass the ball’ and they may be offended by the amount of women’s talk. At decision time, women will generally speak up only to disagree, while men will already have signposted their view.”

Daisley adds that “women typically find it easy to talk about a lack of confidence and self-esteem or areas of uncertainty and fear. Their vocabulary in this context is normally quite different from men’s. Rather than openly acknowledge a personal weakness or difficulty, men will normally prefer to talk of, for example, ‘building on strengths’.

“While mixed groups may work well enough in skills training, the ground rules are quite different in development of the individual. Mixed grouping is likely to fail for the very reasons that set the genders apart,” says Daisley.

Coaching offers the ultimate space for learning and development and this is key in covering the issues of self-confidence that can hold back women in particular.

“Coaching and mentoring looks at the individual’s needs and is done at a personal level without anyone else knowing about it,” says Shine consultancy managing director, Gaby Marcon.

Shine is implementing such programmes across four tourism boards in the North West, with the aim of boosting the quota of female managers.
But some experts believe gender is not that important to coaching and plays second fiddle to other factors.

“I do not differentiate between male and female clients,” says Rob Cram, managing director at Stirling Training Group.

“The issues are much more company-culture related,” he says, referring to the skills he would teach a client for them to succeed in an organisation.

Cram is wary of stereotypes being reinforced through a coaching contract that focuses on gender instead of the individual. Others agree but can see that certain subtleties appear at the beginning of the coaching process.

“Coaches do not need a different set of skills for each gender, but how you get to a male coachee’s core issues may be more indirect than with those of a woman,” says Carole Pemberton, founder of the Career Matters coaching practice.

“Women are much more likely to acknowledge the emotional impact of being a leader, for example, quite early on in conversation with the coach. They are more likely to say that they are ‘stressed’ or ‘losing confidence’,” she says. “With men, it comes through later as they learn to appreciate their personal space.”

Gender differences

Pemberton believes that the Myers Briggs Type Indicator can be seen as a “general distinguisher” between the genders and that it might dictate how the coaching process should start.

Jenny Kidby, principal consultant at Oxford occupational psychology firm OPP, explains: “When people complete a Myers Briggs questionnaire, the area about decision-making shows the biggest gender difference,” she says.

“As regards to men, 65% report having a ‘thinking’ preference, which is about being logical, detached and objective, whereas 70% of women report a ‘feeling’ preference, which concerns values and understanding people,” she says.

Kidby, like Pemberton, is wary of gender stereotyping, and thinks that people adopt them, or the thinking connected with them, because their employers expect it. “It’s often as much about the organisation and what it sends out as the individual who takes on those messages,” she says.

Gladeana McMahon, vice-president of the Association for Coaching, says coaches need to help both genders to work within the culture, which in turn has shaped beliefs that may limit them.

“Women often expect to be recognised and rewarded for doing a good job and overlook the need to showcase themselves,” she says. “Coaching addresses their visibility in the business, so much of the specific coaching focus should be on communication and presence.”


Women need to channel their self-awareness, whereas men need to find it. McMahon says this is particularly true of older men who have a traditional career progression to senior status, driven by mid-20th century values. Such men need a dose of self-awareness to engage in coaching.

“This sort of man will not want to sit around contemplating himself for long ,” she says. McMahon adds that such coachees may need “clear evidence of the impact of their actions” to be presented in the form of hard and irrefutable data, such as 360-degree feedback.

Executive Coaching managing director Geraldine Gallacher coaches equal numbers of men and women. She does not adopt a gender-biased technique but has noticed that different preoccupations crop up early in the conversation.

“Men don’t bring up the dual role of parent and earner, but women discuss the complexity of their role. Many want to be high-achieving employees as well as high-achieving mothers,” she says.

Dee Shipman, a partner in the New Oceans consultancy, agrees. “When a woman comes to coaching, she brings the whole life environment because she is multi-tasking, multi-functioning and multi-challenged. With men, you tend to coach an event,” she says.

Everyone is unique

Shipman tempers this view with one of the tenets of neuro linguistic programming (NLP), on which New Oceans’ practice is based. “NLP starts with the proposition that everyone is unique,” she says. “It’s about coaching within the system they represent or are part of.”

She has hit on the tension that is central to all workplace coaching. Is the coachee being coached to be a better version of themselves or a version of what the organisation wants?

As people rise to more senior levels in an organisation there is a greater emphasis on being logical. But what if that senior person has got to the top because of their intuitive or emotional skills, which are seen as more feminine characteristics? Would shifting such a person’s focus make them more effective or should the organisation look to include their differences and so broaden the corporate outlook?

“If employers want to get the best out of their employees, then they might find it more helpful to use their strengths rather supporting societal stereotypes,” says Kidby.

by Stephanie Sparrow


Miss X is a high-profile woman who approached Carole Pemberton with the admission that she had run to the executive bathroom to cry in private about her work frustrations.

At first glance, a woman like this projects an emotional aspect of herself, but what she wanted was to be effective in organisations, says Pemberton. By being able to say this, she had already stepped back from the emotion.

“Although Miss X was sobbing, she wanted tactics to manage difficult people,” says Pemberton.

In other words, Miss X knew that she had to find a non-emotional response and was looking for this through objective tactics. By turning to a coach, she was beginning to address her stereotypical female behaviour.


Carole Pemberton coached Mr Y. He is a deputy chief executive officer who was seen as being able to drive his people towards task delivery but didn’t inspire them.

He saw coaching as a set of tasks that he needed to learn to be a leader. It wasn’t until he reflected on his youth that he started to think about why he chose to behave as he did. Mr Y had learned this behaviour to cope with a problematic childhood.

At work he was analytical. He worked hard at dealing with the intellectual content of his job but he had limitations when leading people because he didn’t reflect. When the coach encouraged him to think about his choices of behaviour the emotional aspect of becoming a leader became clear and he moved on from his initial stereotypical male behaviour.

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