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Women Dominate Coaching, as Role Meets Important Needs

The best coaches draw on some of the same tools as therapists.
 
 
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Think of the adult women you know. More likely than not, they’ve been bumping into other women who want to be more than helpful friends. Many are becoming coaches: leadership coaches, career coaches, life coaches, spirituality coaches, and more.

Across the U.S., three-quarters of the people who identify themselves as coaches are women, and 70 percent are between 46 and 65 years old, according to a 2012 global study by the International Coach Federation. On the client side, 60 percent were women, with 69 percent between 36 and 56 years old.

Coaching has grown a lot in recent years, and not just in ways that are women-centered. It’s no longer primarily a tool for corporate managers to improve their performance and leadership. It’s also veered into personal areas, such as health, life vision, relationships, and spirituality. As it has matured, institutions like ICF have made a point to emphasize that coaching is not the same as therapy, nor is it consulting, mentoring, training, or athletics. Especially, they’ve sought to differentiate it from therapy.

“Therapy deals with healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an individual or in relationships,” ICF’s website explains. “Coaching is future focused....The emphases in a coaching relationship are on action, accountability and follow through.”  

Coaches do not have the deep medical school training of psychiatrists. They are not licensed by the state. They cannot prescribe drugs, nor are they supposed to intervene in emotional breakdowns or emergencies like psychologists or other trained social workers. But the notion, put forth by this growing profession that coaching clients are healthy, creative, empowered people, while therapy clients are, in contrast, wounded and sick, is debatable when it comes to real-life coaching practices.

That’s the view of Michael Bader, who’s written about both coaching and therapy for Psychology Today. In addition to being a 35-year veteran psychologist in San Francisco, he also coaches union leaders and high-level activists.

“The more people out there providing support, guidance and psychological help the better,” he wrote in last December’s Psychology Today. “Further, because of ancient stigmas that still exist about mental illness, people will more likely accept coaching for their problems than therapy. The problems, however, are the same and so are the cures.”

There are many reasons why the helping professions have been increasingly dominated by women in recent decades, Bader told AlterNet, and coaching reflects those trends. Women seek careers that balance work and home. They are drawn to coaching because it empasizes a quality that’s key to the way most women are socialized: having empathy and taking care of others. It has lower entry barriers than therapy, with training costing anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000 for an ICF-approved or accredited program. It also promises to bump up one’s income by thousands of dollars and enrich one’s work.

“Upon any real investigation, the best coaches and the best psychotherapists work in very similar ways,” Bader said, taking a view that might be considered contrarian among his more conservative colleagues. “For example, assuming an attitude of genuine curiosity about one’s client is a core technique but also a transformative intervention in both fields. The phobia that coaches have about asking ‘why’ questions is silly and reflects an unproven and non-empirical assumption having to do more with received wisdom then anything related to practical usefulness. I ask ‘why’ questions all the time, to great effect.”

But the profession—at least as portrayed by its leaders—has very good legal reasons to differentiate itself from therapists. Coaches want to protect themselves from being accused of practicing therapy without a license. They don’t have the same insurance as therapists to protect themselves from patients who might sue. These declarations are part of how a young field is growing and creating a professional niche, but they also collide with the real-life practice of being a helping professional.    

 
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