Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in Coaching Practice
NOTE: This article was first published in Coaching Perspectives, the magazine of the Association For Coaching, in October 2023.
A few years ago, I was talking to a coach about my extended family.
Although the purpose of the coaching was to help me manage my professional career (I was building up my consulting practice at the time, while juggling a corporate role and two small kids), I wanted to give her some background and context on my life.
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While discussing the dynamics within my family, I shared how I felt obliged to invite certain relatives (who I didn’t know well) to stay at my house when they were visiting the UK. I said it was inconvenient to have guests (because of how busy I was) but ‘it had to be done’.
I recall how shocked she looked. She didn’t comprehend why I felt this obligation and brought up the importance of boundaries. Her view was that it was my house, and I should have the freedom to decide who stays there. Of course, that’s true and boundaries are important. However, she had failed to notice that I was making a choice about who stays at my house – it just wasn’t the choice she might have made. There was an assumption about what I might be feeling, what I needed and what was important to me. The advice I was given didn’t gel with who I was and my social context.
I believe this disconnect was down to a cultural difference.
In the US and UK, we tend to focus on individual uniqueness and personal needs more than in Asian countries, because Western culture is generally more individualistic and less collectivist[i]. This doesn’t mean that individual needs don’t matter in Asian cultures, but often, our group memberships and our relationships take precedence.
With this context and conditioning, the inconvenience of hosting a distant relative genuinely mattered less to me, than the security of my wider family relationships and my sense of belonging in them.
Now, I’m not claiming this is true for everyone or for every situation. However, what the coach missed was noticing an important aspect of my socio-cultural identity and stopping to consider how she and I might view the situation differently through that lens.
This is just one example.
There are many ways in which coaching and coach training, as it stands, reflects a particular set of cultural values and assumptions, often rooted in Western ways of thinking (in my example, individualism and personal power). This can lead to the belief that “Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds” as a character from the Netflix series ‘Beef’ put it![ii]
The profession has grown out of specific schools of study, that may not be relatable or accessible to people from different backgrounds or ways of thinking – not only in terms of culture and race/ ethnicity, but also: class/ economic difference, age, disability, religious beliefs, etc.
In conjunction with this (and perhaps because of it), there continues to be a lack of diverse representation in the profession in terms of who provides coaching, who receives/ can access coaching and how coaching is delivered.
This not only limits the reach and impact of what we do, it also goes against the inherent purpose of our work, which is to remove barriers and enable people to fulfil their potential.
To be more effective and ethical as coaching practitioners, I believe we need to build our capacity to work with and across deep differences – differences in identity, culture, narrative; in ways of being and ways of thinking.
In this article, I want to draw attention to the meaning and implications of diversity within coaching and discuss some ways in which we can make our work more equitable and inclusive.
When we talk about ‘diversity’, the focus is often on certain aspects (such as race, age, gender, and other key strands). However, there are many other ways in which we are different from each other that impact how we relate. This includes identities we are born with (like birthplace, skin colour, appearance, socio-economic background) plus those we might acquire (like education, wealth, accent, religious beliefs, being a parent/carer). Our multiple identities intersect and take on different levels of salience in different contexts.
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When you consider this wider definition of diversity, there is no coach-coachee relationship that is NOT diverse. We are all similar to AND different from each other. We all face the challenge of how to navigate our differences with openness and care.
When it comes to the coaching relationship, there are two kinds of behaviours I’ve noticed that get in the way of doing this effectively:
Downplaying difference (which can lead to ‘covering’)
Singular focus on one aspect of identity (which risks stereotyping)
When we work with a client who is visibly different from us, there is a tendency sometimes to ‘gloss over’ the difference. We enjoy finding similarity with others because it makes us feel more connected. We might (consciously or unconsciously) downplay our differences: for example, taking a stance like “I don’t see colour” or “Gender doesn’t matter”. This isn’t always helpful, because it can send a message to the client to hide away or shut down important parts of themselves.
People from traditionally marginalised or under-represented groups already tend to “mask” aspects of who they are to fit into the mainstream working culture[iii]. My kids sometimes notice the way I put on a different (more ‘British-sounding’) voice when I’m on work calls, compared to when I’m speaking freely at home. A new parent once shared that she resisted talking about her child with colleagues, even though it was the most significant experience in her life, for fear of ‘not fitting in’ to the culture she worked in.
If clients feel the pressure to ‘cover’[iv] in a coaching setting, this blocks true connection. While we can’t force clients to discuss parts of their identity that they may not wish to (and nor should we), we can signal that the door is open if they choose to do so.
Singular focus on one aspect of identity
On the other hand, it is also important to recognise that we are not just one thing.
My racial identity (Indian) is salient in my current context of living and working in the UK and it’s an important part of who I am.
However, it’s not all I am. I’m also a woman, a 46-year-old, twice-immigrant, parent, writer, coach, poet, over-thinker and introvert! If the focus is always only on my racial identity, I miss out on being seen for, and being able to express, other aspects of the whole, complex human that I am.
While I want my ethnicity to be noticed and considered, I don’t want to be defined solely by it.
Developing an inclusive coaching practice
So, how can we approach diversity in a way that helps to build connection and inclusion?
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The answer is not assimilating or ignoring difference or ‘treating everyone the same’ and neither is it about trying to become an expert in every culture.
It is about creating a space where difference is seen and welcomed, but not fetishized or stereotyped, and power is acknowledged.
In my practice, I have developed a three-part approach to this: looking IN, looking OUT and looking AROUND.
1. Looking IN: Acknowledge that we are not neutral.
The first step is an acknowledgement that as coaches, we are not neutral.
We are susceptible to the same human biases and conditioning as everyone else. We need to be aware of (and able to suspend) our own assumptions so that we can be open to understanding the lived experience of the client – without imposing their own frames of reference.
Questions to consider:
What are the basic cultural values and beliefs that drive how I work, and what I expect? Where do these come from? Are there alternative ways of thinking?
How is my identity/ background different from my client’s? What might this block me from seeing or hearing?
What assumptions am I making about my client and their world? Where are the gaps in my understanding?
2. Looking AROUND: Understand systemic inequities.
We cannot aspire to equity and inclusion without being aware of cultural and systemic inequities and power, both in the coaching space and beyond.
We need to constantly remember that the client sitting in front of us might have a very different lived experience and different frames of reference – they may have experienced barriers that we might not even be aware of.
Just as examples:
- LGBTQ+ employees are 30% more likely to have experienced workplace harassment and 22% more likely to have felt nervous or stressed at work[v]
- CV’s with stereotypically White names receive at least twice as many call-backs than identical ones with stereotypically Black or Asian names[vi]
- Disabled workers are more likely to be in severely insecure jobs in the UK (27%, compared to 19% of non-disabled workers), at all levels[vii].
- 65% of neurodivergent employees don’t disclose their condition for fear of discrimination, which prevents them from getting the necessary adjustments to do their work[viii].
Systemic inequities affect our opportunities and options; what resonates with and works for one person might not play out the same way for another.
Coaching offers a space to explore systemic issues and untangle what is and is not in the client’s control.
Questions to consider:
What systemic inequities might be at play in the issues my client is facing?
How can I acknowledge the role of systemic issues, while also giving my client a sense of agency?
How are systemic (cultural) patterns of power reflected in how we relate to each other in our coaching duo? How can we level this?
3. Looking OUT: Tread with courage and care
Ultimately, it is up to clients to decide what aspects of themselves they choose to share. Talking about marginalised aspects of our identity isn’t always easy, and it’s not something we can demand or expect. Building trust to do so may take time.
However, we can open the door by asking the brave question, and not glossing over the seemingly awkward or difficult subjects like race[ix], when they do arise. In the words of Mellody Hobson: rather than colour-blind, we need to be colour-brave[x].
Questions to consider:
What steps can I take to make my practice more open and accessible to people from different backgrounds?
How can I be clear about where I stand on issues of diversity and equality: verbally, in my marketing material, etc?
How can I overcome my fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’ and approach difference in a way that is sensitive, authentic and serves the client?
When we are working across diversity in coaching, we won’t always “get it” and we won’t ever fully know what it is to BE another person.
But we can stand alongside our clients and explore together with humility, empathy, courage and curiosity.
Part of our role as coaches is to create a space where we can all challenge our assumptions and widen our perspective – IN, OUT and AROUND – so we create the best possible chance of true connection and change.
This article was first published in Coaching Perspectives, the magazine of the Association For Coaching, in October 2023.
If you'd like a pdf copy of the original article, please get in touch via email or via: https://www.rewireconsulting.com/get-in-touch
A copy of the full magazine can be found at: https://www.associationforcoaching.com/page/CoachingPerspectivesPublic
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pooja Sachdev is the co-author of 'Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity and Difference', published by Bloomsbury and described by the FT as "the most refreshing approach to diversity I have read".
She is a coach, counsellor, consultant, and founder of Rewire Consulting.
Specialising in organisational development, diversity & inclusion, and leadership, Rewire helps build positive work cultures that enable people, teams and organisations to fulfil their potential.
To find out more, or to register interest in our programmes for organisations, leaders or coaches, get in touch via this website or connect with us on Linked in.
[i] https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-collectivistic-cultures-2794962 [ii] https://www.romper.com/entertainment/ali-wong-beef-asian-american-mental-health [iii] https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/about-deloitte/us-about-deloitte-uncovering-talent-a-new-model-of-inclusion.pdf [iv] Yoshino, Kenji. "Covering." Yale LJ 111 (2001): 769. [v] Statistic taken from: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/7/3/eabe0933. The study looked at the experiences of LGBTQ+ employees in STEM companies in the US (though this pattern is not unique to the STEM sector or to the US). [vi] ‘Why your name matters in the search for a job’: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46927417 [vii] ‘The Disability Gap: Insecure work in the UK’: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/work-foundation/publications/the-disability-gap-insecure-work-in-the-uk [viii] https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/neurodivergent-employees-have-lot-offer-want-be-heard-and-valued [ix] https://www.rewireconsulting.com/post/how-to-talk-about-race-6-principles-for-more-effective-conversations-bridge [x] https://www.ted.com/talks/mellody_hobson_color_blind_or_color_brave