Publication: Women Coaching Women

by Anne Litwin and Mary Lou Michael
Published in CenterPoint Newsletter, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Fall 2001


In a world of high demands for performance and constant culture change, coaching is an increasingly common staple of organizational life.

Our particular interest in the role of coaching in the lives of women leaders grows out of 25 years each of professional experience where we have acted mostly as providers, but also as recipients of coaching.

We initially conceived of this article as a reflection on our own experiences. As we developed a few core questions, Anne came across a framework to help us look at our experience and Mary Lou came up with the idea of interviewing other women coaches. We invite you to read what we have learned.


In “A Comparison of Relational Psychologies,” published by the Stone Center at Wellesley College, Renee Spencer (2000) notes that it is only in the past 30 years, against the backdrop of the women’s movement in the US, that “…a distinct relational view of psychological development has begun to take shape”. She cites the research on girls and women by Jean Baker Miller (1976) and Carol Gilligan (1982) who uncovered relational psychology, a very different paradigm that assumes, “…that we are fundamentally relational and that our psychological development necessarily occurs in and through continuous engagement and mutual participation in relationships with others….”

In other words, “…relationships do not provide merely the context for development, but rather are the mechanism through which psychological development occurs.”

We believe that relational theory provides a context for understanding how to support the development of women leaders and some ways of understanding some differences between women and men as reported in our interview data.

The goal of the coaching relationship in leadership development is usually the growth or expansion of the capacities of the client. Relational theory holds that growth occurs through the mechanism of relationship, and most robustly in the context of an authentic relationship.

Gilligan defines an authentic relationship as one in which a full range of feelings and experiences are expressed—by both the client and the coach. This mutuality of expression by both the client and the coach is key to promoting growth and includes being, “…able to open oneself up to being known, to being moved, and to moving the other person.”

Relational theory also holds that growth requires finding or developing “voice.” Gilligan (1993) says that voice “…is embedded within the body, relationship, and culture…voice is literally the instrument of the psyche and speaking and listening are a form of psychic breathing. The mechanism through which development occurs is the expression of one’s own voice in a resonant relationship.”

Being an effective coach, then, requires that the coach is able to provide resonance by being able to show understanding of the cultural context that the woman client is in, providing listening and feedback, understanding, mirroring, empathy, grounding, and mutuality as previously discussed.


We tapped the experience of six women coaches, in addition to our own experience, with regard to how coaching works and its perceived impact on women leaders. We thank the following women who gave generously of their time and wisdom: Joyce Bader, Erline Belton, Joan Kofidomos, Alexandra Merrill, Mikki Ritvo, and Diane Russ.

Early on, women are more interested in chemistry, men in credentials

Below is a summary of what we learned from this interview process. References to the relational framework will be noted in brackets [ ].

When asked to describe a successful coaching experience with a woman, one clear theme that emerged was the importance of grounding the client in data, “to help her see herself more clearly” and “to help her stay true to herself.” [voice]

One person noted the value of “helping a client see discrepancies between her values and her behavior.” Another theme regarding successful coaching was the importance of the relationship. “It is critical that the relationship is freely chosen.” “We are creating a bond through our shared experiences as women.” [mutuality] “The client gets to experience her authority in the coaching relationship, and this becomes practice for the real world.”

We were very interested in how gender differences show up in coaching. We, along with four of our interviewees, always pay attention to this dynamic; two people said they did not attend at a conscious level. We heard a general theme of “Yes, there are differences.”

One gender difference has to do with establishing the coaching relationship. “Early on, women are more interested in chemistry, men are more interested in credentials.” “Women invite you in, and you need to be able to show vulnerability [authenticity and mutuality], to validate their experience through your experience.”

Another difference has to do with what happens during coaching. “Women are more willing to be vulnerable and to show their vulnerability.” “Women more easily lose track of who they are and what they want.” [voice]

A third difference noted was what is most valued by clients. “Women are more naïve about organizational dynamics, politics.” “Working with women is often long term, over years; this is not usually so with men.” “Women see coaching more holistically, about improving relationships and developing as a leader. Men see coaching as instrumental, to get results.” Coaches need to, “help women honor their own data [voice] and help men recognize their data isn’t the only data.”

We wanted to know how cultural differences showed up and whether coaching approaches and experiences varied.

Most interviewees recognized and could name concrete differences. We heard how important it is to “demonstrate understanding and interest in the client’s culture,” [resonance] “name and validate what is,” “surface cultural biases in an honest way.” From our own experience, too, we know that “when coach and client are of the same culture, trust is easier at the beginning. Trust takes longer to build across a racial difference.”

Several people spoke of what needs to be taken into account when coaching women of color. To begin with, “Recognize that there are different standards of behavior in organizations for people of color and whites.” [resonance]

In addition, “Be aware of the edge of competition between women of color and white women.” And finally, “because self-promotion is counter-cultural for most women of color, coaches must emphasize the need for women of color to do just that… talk about themselves and their accomplishments, be visible and let people know what they can do. They must also take a stand, and have opinions rather than agree or go along.”

One of our strong interests is in women’s use of power, growing out of ten years of coaching women participants in a program sponsored by Power & Systems (see Centerpoint article, Spring 2000 “Women and ‘The Power Problem’“). We wanted to know how women coaches perceive the impact of their coaching on women’s use of power.

We heard a theme of awareness: “Enable women to see their own power and power dynamics more clearly.” “Understand the strong, socialized impulse against having power and using it.” One person noted “When women fully use their power, they draw more projections than men. Coaching is to take on her full power without taking on the projections.”

Another said her coaching is designed “to strengthen particular kinds of power: “‘power-with’ and ‘power-from-within’, [relationship and voice], the two kinds of power women naturally value.” A third sees her role as coach “to help women learn to use their power to develop those below them, i.e., to be powerful and to empower others.”

Our final question had to do with valuable lessons learned as a coach of women leaders. Several lessons were in the arena of how to show up in the role. “Be self-disclosing as a coach.” [mutuality] “Know yourself and have yourself grounded—through meditation, body work, dream work.”

Several had lessons about the coach in relationship to the client’s organization. “Help the client’s organization be clear about the purpose of your coaching. Is it for development or is it for conformity?” “Combining executive coaching with organization development creates opportunities for developing the leader and strengthening the organization.”

All of us had something to say about the focus of our work. “Help my client search for the truth about who she is. She needs to understand herself.” “Help my client seek the truth about how others see her.” “Encourage clients to trust their own perceptions of themselves and the validity of their reactions.” “Help clients see how much they focus outward, and that their real value to the world comes from being connected to their real needs and feelings.” [voice]


Relational theory provides a useful framework for many themes that emerged from the interviews including the importance of the relationship between the coach and the client, greater emphasis on chemistry with coaches by women clients, the need to be able to show vulnerability as a coach of women clients, the importance of being able to acknowledge cultural differences and context, etc.

We believe that being effective in supporting the development of women leaders does require awareness of gender differences. We hope the reflections and experiences reported above are helpful to those involved in this endeavor.


Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, C. (1993). Letter to readers, 1993, In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development (pp.ix-xxvii). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Miller, J.B. (1976). Toward a new psychology of women. Boston: Beacon Press.

Spenser, R. (2000) A comparison of relational psychologies. Stone Center Work in progress series #5, (pp. 1-29). Wellesley, MA.