Anne D., a teacher for over forty years, has begun to think about retirement. She continues to inspire her students-young women of color-to read contemporary literature which broadens their experience and insight into life. Anne’s husband Joe died several years ago and she has an adult daughter, who lives and works in a nearby city. Anne is financially secure. Retirement is a major decision for Anne and she is looking for a life coach with whom she can explore this transition. Anne wants a coach who understands her unique needs and aspirations as a woman. This means that Anne is looking for a coach with a background in women’s developmental theory. A friend asked her if this quality in a coach is really important. “Yes,” she responded, “women understand life differently than men.” Realizing this, Anne is interested in a coach who understands some of the ways women are different from men and why this is important (Conner).
To provide a context for this discussion, it is important to realize that the training a coach receives is largely from male centered studies. Prior to the 1980’s, adult development findings were gleaned from research that had only men as their sample. The assumption was that men and women shared the same thinking process and any finding about male adult development was also relevant for women. This assumption, however, was found to be false. In 1982, Carol Gilligan challenged this assumption in In a Different Voice initiating a new field of study: women’s developmental research. In this article, we will review this research about how women perceive reality; how they think; and how they solve problems.
We return to the possibilities of a coaching relationship for Anne. A key quality of a good coach is the ability to ask powerful questions which empowers, stretches, and motivates the client (Williams & Mendez, 2007). Thus, Anne’s coach would ask powerful questions informed by her knowledge of women’s unique qualities. For example, women perceive their reality through the lens of relationships as opposed to the lens of separation and independence for men. A coach would therefore frame her questions focusing on the many facets of Anne’s relationships. One task for Anne would be resolving the tension between caring for herself and caring for others. Knowing this would enable the coach to explore this tension.
A second quality: women view reality through relationships and attend to their intuitive promptings as well as logic. This differs from men who use reason as their primary approach to life. Again Anne’s coach would respect this particular way of knowing in Anne’s explorations.
Finally another difference between men and women is their approach to problem solving. Men seek the most effective solution through logic in the shortest possible time. Competence is the goal of problem solving. Women use their empathy and discussion as the primary mode of problem solving. Their goal is building relationships. Anne’s coach could then encourage discussion and valuing her relationships.
To summarize, women are concerned about relationship, intuition, and empathy in exploring life. This differs from men. A coach, therefore, knowing these specific developmental issues for women is empowered to design the coaching relationship and frame the powerful questions in a new way. The essence of this relationship is “seeing” a woman through the lens of these specific qualities.