The Art of Coaching for Diversity

Are Arts-based interventions and coaching the way forward in mediating gender stereotypes in the workplace?

By Dr Gosia Ciesielska, Associate Professor of Organisation Studies, and Dr Gill Danby, Director of Artistry in Leadership at Northumbria University

The last thirty years has seen dramatic and important changes in the world of work in the form of globalisation, workplace and society, including increased competitive pressures, disruptive technologies and greater social, ecological and sustainability consciousness. Significant changes in the workplace include: a global shift from a manufacturing-based economy to an information and service-based economy, benefitting women’s employment in management positions, by increasing the value of ‘brain power’ over ‘muscle power’; organisations’ desire for a competitive advantage by mapping employees to their customer base; and more women in full-time higher education leading to more women being available for management positions. However, despite the increase in female employment rates, which reached a record high at 72% in 2020, the proportion of women in managerial and senior positions is reportedly modest across all sectors. For decades, gender inequality has been on both political and HR agenda’s, but efforts to tackle gender inequality have failed as policies and processes have not challenged socially constructed expectations towards gender in the workplace which remain largely symbolic and tokenistic. This failure affects women, their careers, life-work balance and their self-perceptions.

Dr Gosia Ciesielska, Associate Professor of Organisation Studies at Northumbria university, and Dr Gill Danby, Director of Artistry in Leadership address those failures of gender mainstreaming initiatives in their new book Gender bias in organisations: From the arts to individualised coaching (published in May 2021 by Routledge), and propose an individualised arts-based methodology for mediating gender stereotype threat in the workplace.

The empirical work involved 19 women participants from organisations in the North East of England. Data was gathered from life-grid development interviews, two individual arts-based management education workshops, and post-workshop interviews. Participants worked with metaphors and sensory experience in Workshop One, and a performance of Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’ in Workshop Two, both aimed at exploring new perspectives, to reveal underlying assumptions. The fundamental value of this approach was to enhance intellectual creativity, open new viewpoints, and challenge how things are done, facilitating sense-making leading to practical solutions.

Analysis of the pre- and post workshop interviews revealed three different learning discourses: firstly, re-affirmation of self-worth, revealed that women had increased personal values both during the arts-based workshop, and post-workshop; secondly, increased self-efficacy revealed that women had increased self-belief, and in some cases could demonstrate their action, to resolve a gendered situation; thirdly, increased clarity revealed that women had a ‘clearness’ of view relating to the negative judgement of ‘self’ and others’, facilitated by reflexive practice both pre- and post-workshop.

Gosia and Gill believe that there is a great potential in using arts-based methods in diversity interventions, at both group and individual level. Both qualified coaches decided to translate academic research into an individualised coaching practice and now are supporting early-, mid- and late - career women in dealing with challenges. The book specifically discusses the use of narratives, metaphors, and mindfulness in individualised coaching:

Narratives: changing dialogues through individualised narrative coaching helps the coachee create new and alternative stories that have significance and value for the coachee and presents the context of the story from a new angle, thus encouraging different behaviours. Stories facilitate learning and memory, as they show situations or information in the bigger picture or context. They are immersing, interesting and involve emotions and engagement. The result is that narratives give an opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge and understanding both in individual and organisational contexts. An example of using narrative approach in coaching is the life-grid narrative interviews as a way of getting to know the coachee at the first session and understand the many influences on their life and decisions. We have found this approach particularly useful with mature coachees who wish to further their careers, and with professional women to further their understanding of the impact of gender on their own and others’ behaviours.

Metaphors: Can be anything from a word to a short phrase; for example, ‘a light at the end of a tunnel’, ‘stuck in a rut’. It can be used to describe how an individual sees a situation. Everyone has their own unique perspective of life and even the same situation can be seen in different ways by different people. As such, metaphors can bring an insight into how a person has perceived a situation or event in their own life, and goals can help to capture and structure an experience. We have found that metaphors create images in the individual coachee’s mind that tap into their creativity and unlock potential they may not know they have. Metaphors thus often bypass the more analytic thinking mind and directly bring aspects of life less consciously understood.

Mindfulness and sensory engagement: Mindfulness is an existential approach embedding the here and now, grounding in present experience, sensations and allowing us to reconnect with the world of senses and away from unhelpful thoughts. It assists in rewiring our brains and connecting what we feel, think and understand. Studies show that mindfulness is associated with a range of beneficial outcomes such as increased well-being, enhanced mental and physical health, behavioural and emotional regulation, and greater relationship satisfaction. In our coaching practice, mindfulness has been used to reduce stress, anxiety, enhance work-life balance, build resilience, focus on happiness, deal with uncertainty and change, as well as supporting reflective and authentic leadership development.

Hear Gosia and Gill speak about their work at the People Power conference, taking place on 16th November 2021 at Hilton Gateshead and online.

Find our more about Gosia and Gill here:

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