Women Dominate Coaching, as Role Meets Important Needs

Personal Health

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.    

In 2000, Georgetown University offered the first country’s academic coaching program as one of its many post-graduate professional certificates. A recruiting webinar from last winter said the $12,000 program aims to serve people in leadership positions. But then came this exchange when the moderator restated an online participant’s question.

“Someone was wondering about the difference between consulting and coaching. They understood it is a consultant who offer solutions, where the coach helps show opportunities. Is that correct?” the moderator said.

“Yeah, that’s great language,” program director Julie Shows replied. “I like to say we get a lot of recovering consultants in our program.”

This is another distinction that may be a bit academic. The larger reality is that in today’s tough economic times, people approaching their middle years or pondering their careers at midlife don’t have many options to remake themselves. In that context, coaching can be very attractive, especially for women seeking a midlife career correction. A coach for businesspeople can command $200/hour or more, according to a recent ICF survey of professional coaches, said ICF spokesperson Abby Tripp Heverin. In contrast, personal coaches reported earnings of $120/hour.

Bader said the coaching field was trying a bit too hard to distinguish itself, but pointed to prior turf battles in the healing sciences where upstart new fields followed the same path while building their reputations: physicians versus chiropractors; orthopedics versus podiatrists; opthamologists versus optometrists; and psychologists versus differently schooled social workers in family and marriage counseling.

“The pattern is always the same,” he said. “Existing professions hide their competitive self-interest behind arguments about ‘unregulated practicioners,’ ‘threats to public safety,’ and ‘protecting the consumer.’ In response, the new field or discipline does its own predictable dance: It begins to form associations, hold conferences, set up certification systems that establish legitimacy, and spreads the word in a million different ways that its approach is unique and speaks to needs unmet by the existing players.”

This appears to be happening in coaching, and especially in contrast to traditional therapy. The ICF website lists 11 core competencies in programs it approves. The first are all business, such as setting fees and parameters. ICF goes on to describe the actual coaching work, which includes “Establishing Trust and Intimacy,” “Active Listening,” “Powerful Questioning,” “Direct Communication," and more.

Bader is hard-pressed to differentiate these tasks from a therapist’s, but that was okay with him, because traditional therapy, from its training to ways of working with clients, isn’t perfect either. Essentially, Bader believes that if you’re good, your clients relate to you, and you get results, that’s all that matters.

“I think that the barriers to entry for traditional psychotherapists are too high and do not in any way ensure better outcomes. Outcomes, clinical outcomes and practical outcomes, are the only things that should matter when it comes to the helping profession,” he said. “Most psychologists, psychiatrists and clinical social workers that I know are hardly more competent in this crucial regard than are good coaches. Coaching, in other words, lowers the bar for more people to enter environments in which they can help people grow and suffer less, people who would never seek out a psychotherapist. For this reason alone, I think there is value in referring to what one does as ‘coaching.’"

Arguably the biggest problem faced by the industry, like any young field, is not that it is frowned upon by a more-established sibling—some therapists. The problem is the other way around; that there are many people who are self-proclaimed coaches who offer less costly and possibly less substantive solutions. Georgetown’s program is very consciously business-oriented. In contrast, consider California’s EvolvingWisdom.com, where its webinars cost several hundred dollars, with one targeting middle-aged women and offering to teach “feminine power keys.” Its lengthy e-mail pitch reads:

“How often have you said to yourself, 'If only I had more money, more knowledge, a better education, a better job, could lose 10+ pounds, had more ____ (fill in the blank)… then I’d be able to live the life I was born to live!' We’re conscious women who’ve done our personal and spiritual growth work, yet the vast majority of us still identify these external obstacles as the primary barriers to our success.”

Like ICF, Evolving Wisdom is a growing international organization staking out its turf. It claimed its webinars have been watched by hundreds of thousands of women, so it is clearly offering something that is valued by many people. But it is not listed on ICF’s website as an approved coach-training program. Confusion about what’s good or less-good coaching is the profession’s biggest challenges, ICF’s 2012 Global Coaching Study found, Heverin said.

But ICF’s studies also show that public awareness of coaching is growing. It’s a big field with many areas of specialization—personal, professional, organizational and even spiritual. Coaching may be in its relatively early years as a profession, but it's here to stay and is maturing. As Bader says, coaching can be a good way to get help without the cost or stigma of therapy, just as coaching is very appealing work for women.

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