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Effective Practices for Counselling Clients Facing Traditional Gender Issues

Both women and men face challenges as they develop career-building strategies. Regardless of a client’s gender, you will want to take an accepting, flexible, and bias-free approach.

This article addresses counselling practices for clients facing traditional, binary gender issues experienced by women and men. For advice on transgender and non-binary persons, see Effective Practices for Counselling Sexual and Gender Minorities.

Gender may affect a client’s willingness to seek help. Men who believe that they should be able to solve their own problems tend to be reluctant to visit counsellors. Having been taught from an early age that “big boys don’t cry,” they may have trouble discussing their concerns and are less likely than women to seek counselling.

Wherever possible, allow clients to choose the counsellor with whom they wish to work. In working with this client group:

  • Recognize that there are circumstances in which clients may prefer a counsellor of the same or opposite sex.
  • Try to keep the power relationship between you and the client equal.
  • Negotiate counselling objectives together.
  • Encourage clients to be autonomous.

Bias-conscious counselling

Bias-conscious counselling occurs where counsellors are highly aware of their own values, especially as they relate to expectations for women and men. In bias-conscious counselling, the counsellor views gender roles that differ from the social norm as an appropriate and valid expression of the client’s individuality.

While the following guidelines for bias-conscious counselling were created for working with women, they apply equally well to working with men:

  • Be aware of your own values, especially as they relate to gender-role expectations.
  • Assess and monitor your own activities for gender-fair practices.
  • Recognize that you are subject to the same biases as the rest of the culture.
  • Take part in professional development programs and training to maintain and increase your awareness in this area.
  • Continue to increase your understanding of the social, biological, and psychological development of women and men.
  • Stay informed about special issues that have an impact on both women’s and men’s career development, such as daycare, family violence, and training in non-traditional roles.

Gender-fair counselling

Keep in mind the following when working with your clients:

  • Offer the same range of skills training, upgrading, and occupational choices regardless of gender.
  • Don’t assume what particular clients might or might not be interested in because of their gender—or because of their other life roles.
  • Acknowledge non-traditional occupational choices and support clients in seeking jobs they’re qualified for and training they’re interested in.
  • Be aware of the assumptions that underlie the theoretical approaches to counselling. Recognize that these theories may apply differently to women and men.
  • Avoid using test instruments that contain gender biases. Make sure that the materials you use in counselling are gender-fair.

Gender-fair language

Studies clearly show that people equate gender-neutral male terms with males, even when the term is intended to refer to males and females.

Consider using inclusive language in all communications:

  • Man, men » person, people, humans
  • Salesman » sales representative, salesperson
  • The best man for the job » the best person for the job
  • Manning the booth » staffing the booth
  • Housewife » homemaker, home manager
  • Foreman » supervisor
  • Businessman » businessperson
  • You and your wife » you and your partner

Avoid using language that diminishes or trivializes a person:

  • Girl (referring to an adult) » woman
  • The girls in the office » the women in the office
  • The boys in the office » the men in the office

Avoid irrelevant distinctions, differential treatment, or phrases that imply exceptions to the rule:

  • Miss, Mrs. » Ms. (In many contexts, a woman’s marital status is no more relevant than a man’s. Some women still prefer Mrs. or Miss. When in doubt, ask.)
  • Lady construction worker » construction worker
  • Male nurse » nurse

If you are not able to identify preferred terms, look for online resources that suggest more appropriate language. Develop the habit of using gender-neutral words and phrases.

Clients’ beliefs and values

Exploring values is equally important with male and female clients. Male clients with families, for example, may experience life-work conflicts related to their beliefs about roles. They may believe they should hold the traditional role of provider rather than the contemporary role of hands-on family person. Women may experience similar conflicts between their life and work. Exploring their beliefs and values may help clients make choices that will reduce work-life conflicts.

Here are some ways to help clients explore their gender-related beliefs and values:

  • Guided self-explorations about what is important in their work and non-work roles
  • Narratives and storytelling with explorations of embedded meanings
  • Open-ended questions to encourage clients to prioritize their values
  • Exercises that anticipate and contrast possible futures, such as lifelines, life stories, future autobiographies, and guided fantasies

Talk about the effect of stereotyping, discrimination, and prejudice based on gender. Help clients understand that gender discrimination is part of the broader challenge of discrimination based on race, age, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion. Actively work to counter the negative effects of these attitudes on clients.

Recognize that clients’ difficulties may rest in situations or cultural factors that limit their self-concepts, aspirations, and understanding of available choices. Help them realize that the best choices are made on the basis of what works best for them, not on the basis of “shoulds” or “should nots.”

Reconciling value conflicts

As your clients explore their underlying values, they may discover that some of those values conflict with each other. This can often be the source of broader challenges they’re struggling with in their lives and careers. For example, where people treat their work and family roles as equally important, this can be a source of conflict in both domains.

You can help clients reconcile or reduce the conflict between opposing values. For example, clients may plan to focus on those values one at a time instead of at the same time. Or they might seek out more flexible work arrangements that allow more time for family needs. It’s important to take a holistic approach that looks at how clients’ values fit within their broader lifestyle, not just within the workplace.

Support for women

Women may face barriers in career planning and job search due to life circumstances such as domestic abuse or late entry or re-entry into the workforce. These clients may need specialized supports.

Self-empowerment for women

Counselling women in their career search includes helping them to take control of their lives, set their own goals, and make decisions that reflect their needs. This well-tested approach continues to be valid.

Women who become empowered can communicate their needs better. They are also able to negotiate with others to meet these needs. Empowered women are also more likely to overcome barriers and to explore strategies for resolving problems.

Helping women empower themselves includes helping them to:

  • Enhance self-esteem
  • Identify and acknowledge skills
  • Review past accomplishments
  • Reprogram negative self-talk with positive self-talk
  • Clarify values and priorities
  • Identify resources and sources of support
  • Learn more about decision making, goal setting, and problem solving
  • Become an assertive communicator
  • Generate options
  • Get current information

Developing these skill sets also helps in:

  • Decision making and goal setting
  • Self-presentation skills
  • Assertive communication

Group programming for women

Women often benefit from group experiences. They value a nurturing and supportive atmosphere in which to share their own stories and talk about themselves as a means of self-discovery and of building self-esteem. Groups can become the basis of a personal and professional network. They can be a source of valuable support and information.

If job search clubs, mentoring connections, or career development groups for women don't exist in your area, consider working with other organizations to set them up.

Late entry or re-entry to the workforce

In 2017, a less gendered approach to parental leave was introduced in Canada. However, pregnancy and childbirth still have an outsized impact in the careers of women. Time away from work, physical limitations on the type of tasks they can safely accomplish, and psychological impacts such as postpartum depression can all delay women’s career progress and pose challenges on re-entry.

You might use multiple approaches for women who are either entering the workforce late or re-entering the workforce after time away. The best approach may depend on how long they have been out of the workforce or the length of time between the end of their formal education and their entry into the workforce. Some may be recently widowed or divorced, so they may also need supports with loss and grieving.

Consider these suggestions:

  • Reinforce their positive feelings about self-worth and ability to make contributions in the paid workforce.
  • Provide information on effective career decision making.
  • Help them explore changes in lifestyle that might be necessary to accommodate their plans.
  • Help them to prepare to manage both covert and overt discrimination based on gender and age.
  • Where necessary, refer them for assertiveness training and self-awareness training.
  • Help them to identify, build, and maintain support systems.
  • Identify transferable skills such as skills related to homemaking and volunteer experiences.
  • Provide referrals to volunteer opportunities in areas of interest.
  • Suggest ideas for job shadowing options.
  • Provide information on funding for training, training for work, or self-employment programs.
  • Help them weigh the pros and cons of working in entry-level positions compared to training or upgrading.
  • Provide referrals to equity employers.
  • Provide referrals to entrepreneurial support services such as Alberta Women Entrepreneurs.

Women and violence

Barriers for abused women and children—“What amazes me are the systemic barriers that women face when they try to leave an abusive situation. She is at risk, her children are at risk, yet there is very little monetary support available. She may not be able to access any financial resources and may have very few other resources to draw on.”

Although both men and women experience domestic violence, rates are significantly higher among women. Domestic violence has a huge impact on all aspects of the abused woman’s life, including the workplace. The perpetrator may call the abused woman at work or even come to the work site. In some cases, employers may fear for the safety of their employees, clients, and themselves. To protect themselves, the employers may ask an abused woman to leave her job. In these circumstances, the abused woman not only needs a new job, but may also need to find new child care, housing, and transportation.

Consider these guidelines when working with women who have experienced abuse:

  • Believe the client. Women are often not believed. Support your client and don’t judge.
  • The woman’s safety and her children’s safety are always the most important issues.
  • Give your client permission to talk about it through your accepting, non-judgmental attitude.
  • Include reference to family violence in any stress management courses or discussions.
  • Be aware of resources and help women to access them.

Referring for specialized supports

Recognize that encouraging clients to develop on their own may not be enough. Help them to identify the emotional and social barriers between them and their goals and find personal support.

Stay current and connected with support services that are available in your area. For example, be aware of the availability of child care, legal aid, health care, transportation, and emergency services. Help clients gain access to the services they need.

If you see a gap in the services available to women and men in your community, initiate or act as a catalyst for the development of the needed services.

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