Who is supervision for? Anybody who would value a reflective space in which to reflect on their practice and encounter fresh perspectives.

Who comes for supervision? Good question. Women, it would seem. At least that is the case for the flavour of supervision that I have been offering with my colleague, Hetty Einzig, for the past year.

Hetty and I run groups of what we call eco-systems supervision, which attends both to the depth of the inner dynamics of the individual and the breadth of the various systems in which we are located. The eco-systems we have in mind might be, for example, the Earth’s environment or the organisational context in which one works or the family and cultural systems in which we grew up.

Our original intention was to run the groups in places such as parks and galleries, to place ourselves in diverse systemic contexts and encourage divergent thinking. As it turned out, our work has been conducted almost entirely on Zoom. And yet, it has proved a timely model for supervision in this year in which the eco-system has thrown up continuous disruptions to our lives – not just the pandemic and the various pirouettes around lockdown and social distancing but also the movement for racial justice that followed the killing of George Floyd, and political uncertainties around the resilience of American democracy, how Brexit will turn out and whether the union of the UK will hold. We have had rich conversations about how such developments affect us as individuals and impact on our work as coaches.

These don’t strike me as especially gendered considerations. But, apart from myself, we have had no male participants to the conversations. I wonder why.

Part of the answer might be that coaching as a profession skews female. But that might point to a gender imbalance in those coming forward for supervision, not a complete disparity.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and the way we have framed supervision as enquiring into how coaching might have a positive impact on society is, in fact, off-putting to men. But I don’t think this is the case. I have numerous male collaborators who are interested in this question.

Another part of the answer is to be found, as it happens, in Hetty’s own work. In her book, The Future of Coaching, she discusses evidence that women tend to invest more in their development than men. In fact, the work she was citing found that women tend to be more effective leaders than men – and one reason is that they are more open to feedback on how they are doing. Most of us are motivated at the start of our careers to seek feedback and to take action to improve. This tends to decline for both sexes over time. But from the age of about 40, there’s a marked divergence between men and women on seeking feedback. For men, it continues to decline whereas for women it levels out. By this age, women who have done well in their careers have learned that they need to put in twice the effort of men to be thought as good as their male colleagues. Men tend to assume that if they’re doing fine, they don’t really need feedback.

If so, this is a shame for men since they exclude themselves not just from development but rewarding and life-affirming experiences. There’s a thrill in learning. By mid-career, learning shifts from filling one’s head with new content to taking stock of and building on one’s own experience, garnered over decades. In a supervision group, the impact is amplified as group members together share and synthesise their inputs.

But I wonder if there’s yet another explanation why men aren’t coming forward. Gender itself has become an increasingly contested subject and it could be that the reflective space of the supervision group, in which one inevitably encounters the self and its vulnerabilities, looks uncomfortable for men. Since #MeToo, the term “toxic masculinity” has been bandied around with a looseness that has seen it transform its meaning. From originating as a way to describe aspects of the masculine archetype that can become harmful when used to excess, it can often now seem to be a way of disparaging masculinity per se. The construct of the middle-aged, white man, in particular, is the object of widespread denigration. Would it be so surprising if, considering himself to be doing just fine, he doesn’t see much attraction to receiving feedback as his career progresses through its second half and towards retirement?

More broadly, the context of complexity in which most of us work has seen a decline in value of the stock in which many men have traded. Complexity has brought a valorisation of qualities that are usually associated with the “feminine” – emotional intelligence, process and intuition – while attributes associated with the “masculine” – such as rationality, problem-solving and goal orientation – are no longer regarded as sufficient. Perhaps the corrective away from linear logic and towards emergence is expressed sometimes in too binary a fashion. The truth is, managing complexity elegantly requires a synthesis of all these qualities and they are accessible to men and women alike.

Hetty’s book argues that the “feminine” and “masculine” forces can be viewed instead as love and will:

Love’s highest, deepest or most refined expression is in service to others and in wisdom. Will’s highest, deepest or most refined expression is in our striving for excellence and in using power for good. Love’s distortions include an overwhelming need to be liked or accepted to the expense of personal expression, and dependency on the opinions of others that constrains, a lack of boundaries and the inability to make choices that exclude. Will’s distortions include using power over others, inappropriate competitiveness, a desire to be right, to win, and tendencies towards being stubborn, close-minded or judgemental.

Supervision at its best is a place where love and will can find their highest expression, and where their distortions can be surfaced safely and softened. It can happen just fine if men absent themselves from the process. But it is greatly enriched by diversity among its participants, including having both, indeed all, genders in the room. Men can manage just fine without coming to supervision groups (perhaps they prefer one-to-one supervision). But their purpose and mastery is enriched by engaging with diverse development experiences.

Our next round of eco-systems supervision begins in January. We’d love to see some men joining us.

Image courtesy Nik Shuliahin.

Martin Vogel is a leadership coach and coaching supervisor. He draws on inquiry skills honed in journalism, coaching and strategy development and a career-long interest in the role of organisations in society.