Claudia Filsinger, lecturer at Oxford Brookes Business School, Trudy Delamare and Christine Vitzthum, student researchers as part of the MA in Coaching and Mentoring Practice at Oxford Brookes Business School, summarise recent research findings on coaching women at work
Organisations increasingly introduce gender diversity targets and coaching for female staff. This article reviews relevant research by seniority and subsequently the lens of life transitions.
Gender diversity policy was initially focused on increasing female non-executive board members. Recently this has broadened to executive board members and their direct reports (Hampton-Alexander Review, 2016).
Initial interventions in organisations concentrated on preparing female executives for board membership, often facilitated through women-only leadership development programmes complemented with coaching. An international study identified that coaching makes key contributions to women’s career advancement to
senior positions through impact on confidence, career goals, increasing career capital, raising self-awareness and navigating culture (Broughton & Miller, 2009).
Traditional longer-term coaching assignments can be costly. Delamare (2016) explored how a short coaching intervention for female middle managers can help improve a key issue reported in the first Davies Report: women’s career progession slowing down markedly beyond mid-level (Davies, 2011). Fifteen participants received two separate hours of telephone coaching. Women reported it as a rare opportunity to explore barriers to career progression resulting in a broader mindset, feeling more comfortable about self-promotion, learning to manage careers as projects and taking practical next steps.
Interestingly, internal coaching was perceived as risky, while external coaching was seen to offer impartiality and a fresh perspective.
Participants appreciated the kickstart to re-engage with their careers and valued a challenging conversation with a subject expert.
Where talent lies
Organisations increasingly recognise that gender diversity initiatives need to consider all career stages to ensure a healthy talent pipeline. Early talent development programmes sometimes include coaching for female staff to alleviate issues rooted in early career behaviours, such as women having lower career ambitions and career confidence (ILM, 2011). This concurs with reports from recruiters of women limiting their job search by only applying when meeting all criteria.
Coaching is also used during life events impacting careers, in particular the parenting transition. Parenting breaks have been identified as career penalties and research on coaching during the parenting transition has been emerging.
A qualitative study (Filsinger, 2011) explored changes to the psychological contract on career development after maternity leave and found that the understanding of mutual obligations between employers and employees hadn’t changed. However, the expectations from returning women around career development was altered. Quality, nature and volume of work were identified as key career re-engagement factors.
The returners’ career success definition had become more holistic, including home life, and linear career paths were seen as limiting. Bussell (2008) identified that a lack of career development opportunities can lead to retention issues 12-24 months post maternity return.
In response to the talent drain and to support the complex return transition, the practice of maternity coaching has developed. The benefits are: building confidence, retention, sustainable working patterns, long-term career development, well-being and performance (Bussell, 2008; Cotter, 2016; Filsinger, 2011). Critical voices warn of maternity coaching placing the onus on the individual, disguising structural changes needed to improve support of working mothers in organisations (Brown & Kelan, 2013). This is supported by a mixed-method study, which highlights the importance of involving line managers in maternity coaching (Cotter, 2016).
Recently, organisations have increased their efforts to retain working mothers by offering more maternity benefits, and addressing some of the identified structural and cultural issues. While these benefits are appreciated, they only partially address the individual and complex issues women encounter on their return.
An action research study, set in two large international companies, investigated how maternity-return coaching can complement these benefits (Vitzthum, 2016). Managers and mothers were interviewed to understand salient issues before the coaching and 12 mothers received two hours of coaching on their return.
The findings indicate that maternity-return coaching complements organisational maternity benefits by supporting mothers on an individual level that cannot be attended to otherwise. This can be achieved by developing strategies to optimally use organisations’ given framework or to balance work-life needs, by clarifying and communicating expectations or planning career progression. Participants confirmed the powerful and focused nature of this short intervention, leading to an accelerated and more confident career re-engagement.
Findings also indicate that offering maternity-return coaching improved organisations’ reputation and increased loyalty. Provided the organisational culture is committed to supporting returning mothers and the coach is a trained professional, the combination of organisational maternity benefits and maternity-return coaching can be powerful, addressing a broad range of issues.
In summary, the important role coaching plays in supporting a critical business agenda has been reinforced. Existing research is predominantly qualitative, set in the private sector, focused on senior women and maternity coaching. Arguments have been made for short coaching assignments to make coaching more widely accessible. However, more research with bigger samples on their effectiveness is required.
Further research is needed on the role of coaching after longer-term career breaks. Increasingly, organisations recognise career returners as a talent pool and offer returnships, often with coaching.
Lastly, increasing knowledge of coaching women during other life transitions, such as menopause and retirement, would benefit the coaching profession and clients.
- A Broughton and L Miller, Encouraging Women into Senior Management Positions: How Coaching Can Help. An international comparative review and research, Brighton, UK: IES, 2009. http://bit.ly/2j2DZCV
- S Brown and E Kelan, Managing maternity: maternity coaching, therapeutic culture and individualisation. Paper presented at the 13th annual conference of the British Academy of Management, University of Liverpool, September 2013
- J Bussell, ‘Great expectations: can maternity coaching affect the retention of professional women?’ in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue 2, pp14-26, 2008
- K Cotter, Attitudes of line managers, HR leaders and coachees towards maternity coaching, Study undertaken in part completion of Doctorate in Psychotherapy, Middlesex University, 2016
- M Davies, Women on Boards, Report 2011. http://bit.ly/2jP8Joc
- T Delamare, Unblocking the Talent Pipeline. An action research study into coaching for mid-level women to develop and progress their careers. MA Dissertation, Oxford Brookes University, 2016
- P J De-Valle, An exploration of executive women’s experiences of coaching and mentoring: an Interpretaive Phenomenlogical Analysis study. Doctoral Dissertation, Oxford Brookes University, 2014
- C Filsinger, How can maternity coaching influence women’s re-engagement with their career development? MA Dissertation, Oxford Brookes University, 2011
- FTSE Women Leaders, Hampton-Alexander Review, 2016. http://bit.ly/2kqAGBP
- ILM, Ambition and Gender at Work. London: The institute of Leadership and Management, 2011. http://bit.ly/2j2F6Tg
- C Vitzthum, How can maternity-return coaching complement structural organisational benefits? MA Dissertation, Oxford Brookes University, 2016