As Lindsey Mitchell approached the end of her doctoral program in counseling at George Washington University, she wasn’t quite sure what was next. After a decade of intense focus on her education, she found her career options in the field both exciting and intimidating. When Mitchell began talking to other women in her program about career choices, she realized that questions about ambition, leadership and family were common among female counselors.
Energized by these discussions with her colleagues, Mitchell decided to take the conversation to the American Counseling Association’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal. Her idea took shape as a panel session called “To Lean In or Not to Lean In: The Diverse Experiences of Women in the Counseling Field.” The title alone was enough to catch the attention of many women at the conference and set the stage for an engaging talk between four ambitious and thoughtful counselors.
The phrase “lean in,” made famous by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, is rife with connotations and criticisms. Sandberg encouraged women to take risks, not make sacrifices based on hypotheticals, and to pursue leadership by taking a seat at the table. A former chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury secretary and a leader in the tech industry, Sandberg draws from her years of experience in male-dominated fields.
But when Mitchell and others considered this philosophy of leaning in, they faced an important question: What does “sitting at the table” mean in the counseling profession when the majority of counselors and ACA members are already female? Weren’t they already at the table?
A colleague of Mitchell’s recommended that she recruit Desa Daniel, a doctoral counseling student at Kansas State University, as a compelling voice for the ACA Conference panel discussion. Daniel thinks that numbers alone aren’t enough to change leadership dynamics. Although ACA and the counseling profession as a whole may be filled with women, she notes that leadership positions within the profession don’t always mirror those numbers. “We still have a long way to go until women hold positions in universities and governance that reflect their presence,” says Daniel, adding that she’d like to serve as president of ACA in the future. She currently serves as the student representative for Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA, and as student liaison for Division 45 (the Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity and Race) of the American Psychological Association.
Jessica Jackson, a licensed mental health counselor and a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at New Mexico State University, also joined the discussion. She points to the male-dominated foundational and theoretical influence in the field as a real challenge. “When you look in the texts, our foundational knowledge is coming from men of European descent, and the structure of the training is based on that,” she says. “No one deviates from the blueprint, so to me, that doesn’t feel like a field dominated by women.”
Jackson also points out that texts such as Sandberg’s, as well as feminist psychology and various waves of the feminist movement, typically failed to include black women in the conversation. Part of her role on the panel, she says, was to help remind counselors that women of color can still be forgotten or excluded in a space that is predominantly female.
Having it all
Comedian Tina Fey wrote that the rudest question someone can ask a woman is, “How do you juggle it all?” Fey suggested the question operates on the assumption that, for women at least, success in one arena of life (e.g., the workplace) implies failure in another (e.g., family life). The question is rarely posed to men. Members of the conference panel set out to consider what “having it all” looks like in the counseling profession and whether balance between multiple arenas of life is possible.
“Can women have it all? I think yes, but we may have to package what that looks like in a different and creative way,” Mitchell says. Currently serving as an Americans with Disabilities Act counselor at Houston Community College, Mitchell points to the male-dominated workplace models that create impediments to women who desire balance between work and family life. For instance, she observes, when their children are ill, some mothers in the workforce will hide that fact and instead claim a sick day for themselves because they don’t want their parenting responsibilities to hurt how they are perceived at work.
“You would think that in a female-dominated field like counseling, it would be better,” Mitchell says. “But we’re still using these male business models instead of thinking about how we can be greater leaders to women that maybe we didn’t have. Sometimes we don’t have a model for what that looks like, so we have to start creating our own.”
These sentiments reflect a common critique of Sandberg’s idea — namely that Lean In ignores systemic obstacles that are present and remain unchanged in the workplace, regardless of whether women make it to the top playing by the current rules. So what rules do counselors need to change to make the workplace and the classroom more flexible and empowering places for women?
Mitchell asked Megan Doughty Shaine, an assistant professor of psychology and counseling at Hood College in Maryland, to bring her voice to the panel as a professor and parent. Shaine shared how her desire to have a multifaceted career and also be a mother affected her path. “It does change the way you move through your education, from the internships you accept, to the jobs you consider, to how you prioritize things,” she says. For example, Shaine limited her search for doctoral programs to the East Coast because she wanted to be close to her family when she started one of her own.
Shaine recommends that women in counseling leadership model how conversations about “having it all” are OK and even encouraged at work. “You’re more likely to have a female supervisor than a male supervisor, at least in the clinical world,” she says. “We have to really evaluate how open we are with these issues of work-life balance.”
Jackson agrees, pointing out that real pressure still exists to choose between focusing primarily on career or family in academia. “People don’t feel comfortable choosing a middle ground because that looks like you don’t know what you want,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s impossible to integrate and have both. My idea of success is being able to acknowledge and appreciate the many roles that I have as a black professional woman without having to sacrifice what means the most to me.”
Members of the panel also considered how to model what good mental health looks like for women trying to balance multiple roles in life. “So many of the conversations that we have about self-care feel fake,” acknowledges Daniel, who does CrossFit every day as a self-care measure. “We have to show tangible examples of what it looks like and how people manage it over the course of their careers. We need to lead by example but also help people set objectives and deadlines for self-care.”
Mitchell suggests that establishing and maintaining boundaries is an important piece of achieving balance. “I feel the pressure to be everything to everyone, and I know that is not a realistic expectation,” she says. “There will be stages in my life where my professional career has to take priority and other times when it will take a step down in importance. I know I entered this profession because I care about people and want to help, so there can be a conflict when I have to put myself first and inadvertently disappoint somebody in another area of my life. So it is a bit of a Catch-22. But this conflict will have to be resolved by continuing to reevaluate my values, my stage of life and what my goals are at the time. It’s an ever-changing process.”
Rather than a detour from success, Jackson sees the pursuit of balance as integral to achieving her goals. “I’m a happier and better person when I can feed the many different parts of who I am,” she says. “By engaging in prayer, checking in and being honest with myself, and being present in the moment, I am better prepared to achieve my idea of success. Potential conflicts may arise due to this expectation that to be successful in your career, you must dedicate your entire life to your career. But I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe that I have to achieve burnout in order to be successful.”
An intersectional approach
Another critique of the philosophy behind the “lean in” movement and second-wave feminism is the relative lack of examination of women’s intersecting identities. At the ACA Conference, panel members wanted a significant amount of the conversation to focus on the diverse roles and identities of women in the counseling field and the impact this reality has on what it means to lean in.
Jackson points out how traditional advice given in books such as Sandberg’s, including the call to be assertive, may not work for every woman. “As a black woman, being assertive comes across as being the angry black woman. So how do I navigate the need to be assertive without also coming across as angry, even when I’m not angry? Because as soon as I’m assertive, that’s what everyone assumes,” Jackson explains. “When people give you advice, it’s coming from their social identity: their privilege, their background, etc. So you have to figure out what you can take from that and what you can leave.”
Jackson also recommends that female counselors gather both mentors who share their identities and those who do not to help them better navigate the field. When her interest in pursuing a research career led her to apply to the National Research Mentoring Network, she decided to choose a white male as one of her mentors to give her a different perspective. “He gave some insight on how to approach challenges rather than simply focusing on why people don’t understand things the way I do,” Jackson says.
For Jackson, who aspires to improve pipelines for people of color into academia and the mental health field, leaning in also includes starting conversations about the changing landscape of counseling and the reality that counselors don’t provide services to just one population. “We have to expand our ability to provide therapy to people with multiple identities and make room for them at the table as well,” she says. “If the path to leadership was really so linear, there would be a more diverse group of people stepping into those roles.”
Shaine asserts that counseling programs also have to address intersecting identities for their students, particularly those who are considered nontraditional. She points to the young women in her classroom who also work full time and the middle-aged mothers who are returning to school after a long hiatus or a career change. “We have to support them and try to be creative in helping students navigate a program,” she says. “Otherwise, we’re going to lose their voice and we’re going to end up with this monolithic student body, which I don’t think any of us want. That feels very antithetical to the counseling profession, where we want a diversity of perspectives.”
Counseling education programs could also use creativity and a focus on intersectionality to prepare women for a variety of roles in the field. Daniel points out that these programs rarely focus on issues such as licensure, starting a business or management roles. “Counselor ed programs need to step up their game and talk to people about what’s possible on the ground,” she says. “It’s socially unjust to send women out into the field without the full resources of what it really means to have a clinical practice.”
Advice from the panel
When asked what advice they would give to women entering a counseling education program or their first job as a counselor, panel members provided a variety of suggestions.
Mitchell, who aspires to a major leadership role in university student services, says that surrounding herself with the type of women who prompted these conversations in the first place was her best resource. “Sometimes we’re afraid to do that because we don’t want to feel like the least intelligent person in the room,” she says. “But you have to put your insecurities aside and see what you can learn from these women because, someday, you’ll be the person in the room somebody else is looking up to.”
Jackson says that advocating for your interests can go a long way. “If other people have that interest, then maybe you have enough people to request a class on that subject,” she says. “To me, that’s how change starts — being vocal and advocating for yourself.”
Shaine says women in the counseling profession shouldn’t lose sight of the flexibility they possess. “You can make a choice and change your mind later. We have an incredibly flexible field that gives us many different options. Be gentle with yourself,” she advises, “and know that the choices you make now can always be adjusted if they don’t suit you in the future.”
Daniel, who aspires to be a faculty member in a counselor education program, says that supporting other women can be empowering in itself. “We need to be better about supporting all women in their journeys, even if it doesn’t look like [our] own,” she counsels. “At the end of the day, we are creating pipelines for little girls to be what they want to be.”
Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and writer in Washington, D.C. Her book, The Fangirl Life: A Guide to All the Feels and Learning How to Deal, was published earlier this year.
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