How can coaching assist women towards authenticity? Sally A Jackson and Judie Gannon report

In 1929, Virginia Woolf said, “It is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail” (p74).

Citing this, Gilligan (1993) adds that “as a result, women come to question the normality of their feelings and to alter their judgements in deference to the opinion of others” (p16). Thus, for almost a century it has been acknowledged that women’s capacity to be themselves appears to be curtailed. Inevitably this can result in behaviour that is not authentic. Trilling (1972) asserts that authenticity is when “within” and “without” are in harmony (p93).

However, it is difficult to consider that such a condition of congruence is achievable for women if they perceive themselves unable to assert their values, beliefs and opinions. The challenges faced by women in achieving senior roles in public and professional settings appear particularly resonant given these insights on authenticity.

There is contention on authenticity, with some authors viewing it as an ideal to be aspired to (Goffee & Jones, 2000) where others take the perspective that authenticity is a moral virtue (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Authenticity can also be viewed as a personal or relational construct, with Erikson (1995) espousing that authenticity is established by an individual asserting personal moral standards that are owned and lived, thereby being true to him/herself.

There are associated aspects to both coaching and authenticity that warrant and receive attention. The issues of transference and counter-transference need to be considered by coaches as part of their authentic behaviour and reflective practice in the management of their relationships with clients (Kets de Vries, 2010). Operating at two levels simultaneously, the effective coach needs high levels of reflection and self-awareness, and both attributes are required for authentic behaviour (Kets de Vries, 2009) in the coaching relationship.


The demands of authenticity

A doctoral study undertaken at Oxford Brookes considered the views of both coaches and clients in relation to the contribution coaching makes in assisting women towards authenticity in their career.

Using heuristic inquiry, nine female co-researchers participated in the study. Each co-researcher was interviewed three times over a period of 14 months with an interlude of approximately three months between each to allow for reflection (Worth, 2013). Authenticity was regarded as difficult to define and subject to vague usage, by both sets of participants. A common understanding was that being authentic is characterised by trueness to oneself. However, while authenticity was a laudable aspiration, its attainment was a challenge and perhaps idealistic. A finding which Tomalin (2018) recognised in his recent exploration of authenticity.

Worth’s study participants identified that the concept of the coaching relationship was unanimously claimed to be of prime importance. Many of the co-researchers considered ‘being authentic’ as demanding congruence and consistency of beliefs, thoughts and actions in conjunction with the critical elements of a productive coaching relationship. The coaches in Worth’s doctoral study (2013) identified the importance of the coaching relationship in setting the environment, detailing their approach to coaching and how they make observations to their clients.

Commenting on what they notice as coaches was considered to add to the depth of the discussions being reflected back to ensure understanding and was articulated as “it’s a mirror from something going on outside”.

The demands of being authentic were found to be challenging: neither easy to manage nor always welcomed by others. However, it was felt that such difficulty should not put people off, as experiencing it helped with
self-awareness and growth.


How coaching helps

Although behaving authentically was not always considered comfortable, it was thought that effective coaching was a helpful intervention which could have a positive influence in enabling behaviour change in women, while maintaining balance and perspective. The role of coaching in providing unconditional support and constructive challenge was highly prized in enabling women to assert themselves authentically.

The study revealed the importance of coaching and highlighted the reciprocity involved in productive, authentic relationships.

This study reinforces the value of coaches considering the alignment of their own values, beliefs and actions as well as how they can develop authentic coaching relationships to support clients’ quest for authenticity in their personal and professional lives.


  • Dr Sally Jackson (née Worth) is currently the director of HR and OD at Sheffield Hallam University. Her academic interest is coaching and mentoring, particularly within the realm of equality, diversity and inclusion. She is dedicated to supporting women in their careers and is a role model and mentor for Advance HE’s Aurora programme and a member of WISE (Women in Science and Engineering).
  • Dr Judie Gannon is senior lecturer in human resource management (coaching and mentoring), at the Business School, Oxford Brookes University



  • R J Erickson, ‘The importance of authenticity for self and society’, in Symbolic Interaction, 18(2), pp121-144, 1995
  • C Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, London: Harvard University Press, 1993
  • R Goffee, and G Jones, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’, in Harvard Business Review, (September-October) pp63-70, 2000
  • M F R Kets de Vries, Sex, Money, Happiness and Death, the Quest for Authenticity, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
  • M F R Kets de Vries, Reflections on Leadership and Career Development, Chichester, UK: Jossey-Bass, 2010
  • C Peterson and M E P Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
  • N Tomalin, ‘Behind the mask’, in Coaching at Work, 13(1), January/
    February, 2018
  • L Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, London: Harvard University Press, 1972
  • l V Woolf, (reprinted in Penguin Classics, 2000.) A Room of One’s Own, London: Penguin Classics, 1929
  • S A Worth, ‘An exploration of coaching women towards authenticity in the workplace: A heuristic study with women in academia’, Doctoral thesis in Coaching and Mentoring, Oxford Brookes University, 2013
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