Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Counseling girls and women in the current cultural climate

By Tracy Peed, Crissa Allen, Mary A. Hermann, J. Richelle Joe and Anna M. Viviani May 5, 2022

This piece is the second of a three-part series for CT Online. It is the result of the work of ACA President S. Kent Butler’s Gender Equity Task Force. The first article, “Breaking the binary: Transgender and gender expansive equality,” was published on April 4 and the third article “The effects of gender socialization on boys and men,” was published on June 15.

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In this article, we highlight gender equity issues that impact girls and women and provide recommendations for counselors who work with this population.

Complex realities of girls and women

Girls and women experience complex realities. Despite their increased opportunities in the past several decades, they face pervasive limiting gender norms. For example, girls and women are still dissuaded from entering STEM fields and encounter a “chilly climate” in STEM classrooms, resulting in significant underrepresentation in STEM fields. Furthermore, girls and women with additional marginalized identities experience heightened challenges.

The supergirl and superwoman ideals permeate popular culture and media. Selective, digitally altered social media posts send the message that the superwoman ideal is achievable, and even easily accessible. The narrow construct of feminine beauty further complicates these messages. Girls’ and women’s socialization to “have it all” has become more difficult, with work hours continuing to increase in many professions as technology creates new norms related to worker availability.

In addition, women engage in the invisible work of navigating the gender bias that remains prevalent in the workplace. Women still earn significantly less than men for the same work, and this reality is compounded by racism. For example, white, non-Hispanic women who work full time earn 79% of what white, non-Hispanic men earn, whereas African American women earn approximately 64% and Hispanic women earn 57% of what white, non-Hispanic men earn. Adding to this challenge, negotiating a higher salary is more complicated for women because it defies social stereotypes.

Women who are mothers have experienced heightened parenting expectations in recent decades. They engage in more child-centered activities than mothers did in the 1960s, a time when most mothers of young children did not work outside of the home. Yet, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 75% of mothers of young children worked outside of the home.

Working mothers in the United States attempt to meet societal motherhood expectations while maintaining employment without the supportive infrastructure found in almost all other industrialized countries. The cost of child care often exceeds the cost of rent. Paid family leave is not available in many work settings, driving 25% of mothers back on the job within two weeks of giving birth. And despite the lack of paid family leave, the promotion of breastfeeding as imperative is a message new mothers receive from almost everyone today, including medical professionals — a puzzling phenomenon in light of contradictory studies on the benefits of breastfeeding. Even women who adopt their babies experience pressure to breastfeed. Women experience judgment and shame if they are not in a position or choose not to breastfeed, which can lead to negative mental health outcomes.

Why now: Refocusing on the needs of girls and women

Although men have increased their participation in household activities in the past few generations, the second shift still falls primarily on women. Furthermore, expectations related to second-shift activities have continued to rise in what Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels call the “Martha Stewartization of America,” where women are judged on their parenting and the appearance of their homes under these elevated standards while men are not. In fact, men are often glorified for participating in basic parenting activities, which Anne-Marie Slaughter called the “halo dad syndrome.”

Intersectional identities add new layers to these challenges. For example, girls and women who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ communities are vulnerable to increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide as a result of discrimination. Although the need for mental health services is high, members of these communities often experience a disproportionate lack of access to these resources.

According to the cultural narrative, women are expected to navigate discrimination, harassment, rising work hours, increased motherhood expectations, heightened second-shift cultural standards and current unattainable beauty ideals without ever asking for help. Many women blame themselves when they believe they are failing to meet societal standards, but in reality, the cultural system is failing them.

Similarly, girls and women encounter sexism, bullying, sexual harassment and toxic body image messages. They are encouraged to take advantage of all opportunities and to strive to be perfect at everything. Thus, they are socialized to reach for impossible standards of success. Social media often intensifies these messages.

Yet benefits of social media exist as well. Some girls and women have found supportive communities through social media, which have provided them new channels toward justice and change. Since its inception in 2006 by Tarana Burke, the #MeToo movement has promoted empowerment and support for girls and women who have experienced sexual violence. The social media hashtag has evolved into real-world measures of accountability for aggressors, notably in the entertainment industry. Use of social media for revealing information on sexual abuse does, however, have repercussions. Girls and women have cited instances of harassment, stalking and bullying on the web after posting the hashtag, leading to increased isolation, grief and retraumatization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the challenges girls and women encounter. Gender inequities in the United States are further exposed during the crisis. For example, mothers experience a higher burden in managing family life during the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, most working mothers lost their access to child care and other support systems. Even two years into the pandemic, isolation and quarantine mandates continue to disrupt the availability of child care on a regular basis, including the child supervision provided by schools.

The pandemic-related challenges have lingered far longer than expected, often resulting in significant mental, physical and emotional fatigue. Not surprisingly, the pandemic negatively affected women’s workforce participation. In 2019, women accounted for approximately 50% of the U.S. labor force; by the end of 2020, there were 2.1 million fewer women working.

As women were leaving the workforce at alarming rates, men’s workforce participation increased. Systemic racism exacerbated these gender inequities. African American women experienced an unemployment rate of approximately 41%, and Latinx women experienced an unemployment rate of over 38%. While the economy improved in 2021, less than 50% of these women returned to the workforce. For many workers who remained employed, on-the-job hours increased as staffing shortages grew.

Culturally responsive counseling with girls and women

Although it is important to understand the various challenges that girls and women may experience, it is also critical to avoid assumptions and stereotypes related to gender when counseling girls and women.

Identifying as a girl or woman is just one aspect of an individual’s multifaceted identity. The combination of various intersectional identities coupled with one’s environment ensures that individuals have vastly different life experiences. Furthermore, one’s identities may result in more collective privileges, compounded marginalization or a mix of both.

Therefore, it is important to understand not only a client’s gender identity but also their other social and ethnic group identities and how these various identities intersect and influence aspects of a client’s life. It would be unjust to assume that a white, upper-class, heterosexual, cisgender woman has had the same lived experiences as a Latinx, working-class, pansexual, transgender woman. As counselors, we need to be mindful of and provide an accepting space for women to explore the development of their multiple identities in counseling.

When working with girls and women, counselors need to consider several salient concerns regarding career interests, such as career choice alignment with familial and cultural expectations, traditional versus nontraditional career choice, as well as navigating harassment, bias, the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap. Tread carefully in this work, and remember that people put limits on themselves in the career domain based on their self-concept and their belief that they are a fit for or could do a particular job.

Girls and women are likely to engage in circumscription, eliminating careers that appear too masculine in the eyes of society or seem unsuitable or out of reach of their capabilities. Or girls and women compromise, selecting or short-listing careers that they see women within their social environment pursuing. Counselors must strive to monitor girls’ and women’s reactions and responses to and support of career-related endeavors, recognizing that they may be trimming their options based on the counselor’s response.

It is important to use gender-neutral language and present a wide array of potential options when introducing and exploring jobs/careers. Being a girl or a woman can come with a multitude of career expectations, relationships and society. Counselors provide women with an environment to process their numerous roles, determine if role strain or role conflict exists, and work together to navigate role-related issues based on the client’s authentic choices.

Counselors must consider how to be more gender aware, attuned and affirming in their approaches and interventions. Many postmodern approaches and theories lend themselves to this aim. The following are a few to consider alongside your current approaches. Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive; a search of multicultural and social justice-oriented theories will provide a more extensive list.

  • Multicultural counseling and therapy acknowledges all individuals as cultural beings and, as such, their various cultural identities, values and biases are an important part of the counseling process.
  • The Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies provide additional support for working with a diverse clientele.
  • Feminist therapy allows counselors to view clients and their concerns through a lens that incorporates concepts of gender, power, privilege and oppression.
  • Relational-cultural theory focuses on finding identity through relationships and culture as a powerful influence on these relationships.

By shifting their approach, counselors create culturally responsive ways to meet the growing needs of girls and women.

Advocacy interventions with girls and women

In addition to counseling individuals and groups, advocating for clients is a vital and necessary part of our practice. Advocacy can occur on multiple levels, ranging from micro to macro. A counselor can engage on behalf of the client or with the client/group, with an overall goal of empowerment and eliminating individual and systemic barriers and oppression.

At the individual level (microlevel advocacy), the focus is on empowerment interventions with or on behalf of individual clients. Advocacy might include activities such as negotiating inequitable child care and second-shift expectations in a relationship. Counselors can navigate these actions using theoretical approaches and interventions that allow for identity development, are strength-based and are focused on empowerment.

Counselors may observe girls and women struggling with similar issues. Although counselors will likely work on individual empowerment, larger scale intervention may be needed to address more pervasive systemic issues. In this midlevel advocacy, counselors would advocate for community change with and on behalf of girls and women. Examples of community-level advocacy include advocating in schools against unfair dress code policies that marginalize girls, advocating at the local school board for curriculum to support girls and young women in mathematics and science, and advocating to local employers to support women’s needs from health care to child care in the workforce.

Although not all counselors feel comfortable or ready to advocate on a systems level, they are strongly encouraged to note their clients’ needs and get involved. Even a small advocacy endeavor has a ripple effect.

It is therefore important to know and understand the issues facing girls and women, not only in your community but also at the state, national and international level. We can all advocate for just social policies and strive to dismantle systemic inequities experienced by girls and women, such as lack of affordable access to quality health care and child care, the minimal amount of paid family leave and support for working mothers, pay inequities and work/career barriers.

For more help with advocacy initiatives, consult the ACA Advocacy Competencies for guidance.

 

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Find out more about ACA’s Gender Equity Task Force at acagenderequity.weebly.com

 

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Tracy Peed is a licensed professional school counselor in Illinois and Minnesota, an assistant professor and doctoral coordinator in the Department of Counseling and Student Personnel at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a member of the ACA Gender Equity Task Force. Contact her at tracy.peed@mnsu.edu.

Crissa Allen is a doctoral student at East Carolina University and a licensed clinical addictions specialist associate. Contact her at allenc13@students.ecu.edu.

Mary A. Hermann is a licensed professional counselor, a certified school counselor, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education, and affiliate faculty in the Institute of Women’s Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the co-chair of the ACA Gender Equity Task Force and founder and director of the Women’s Lifespan Development Research Lab. Contact her at mahermann@vcu.edu.

Richelle Joe is an associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology at the University of Central Florida. Contact her at jacqueline.joe@ucf.edu.

Anna M. Viviani is an associate professor at Indiana State University, a licensed professional counselor in Indiana and Illinois, an approved clinical supervisor and a member of the ACA Gender Equity Taskforce. Contact her at Anna.Viviani@indstate.edu.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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