When we sought to interview women directors of counseling centers about their experiences, we weren’t exactly sure what we’d discover. All we knew was that we were interested in their unique leadership experience given the conflicting values between care work and higher education today.
Higher education is not that different from many other large organizations. According to Bernie Grummell and colleagues’ article published in the journal Gender and Education in 2009, institutions are influenced by capitalism and therefore are more focused on the bottom line and on employees working solely for the benefit of the organization (even if it is to the detriment of their personal lives), resulting in what is considered to be a “care-less” organization. In a 2010 article for Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Kathleen Lynch notes that this care-lessness manifests in leaders and workers becoming cutthroat, ruthless and selfish in order to excel within the organization.
As women working in a university setting for, cumulatively, over 20 years, we have become well attuned to the differing values between care divisions and the larger institution. And we have noticed that trying to lead divisions centered on providing care, such as a counseling center, within this care-less organization of higher education is fraught with tensions and contradictions.
Additionally, gender inequities inherent to higher education produces a gendered organization with its own set of challenges. As theorized by Joan Acker, gendered organizations create and maintain overt and covert practices, cultural dynamics and social norms based on gender that hinder women, especially their movement into leadership positions. Understanding how women directors navigate leading a care work division while also negotiating their role as a “care-less leader” within a gendered organization is essential to uncovering the interaction between gender, leadership and care work within the care-less landscape of higher education.
Our curiosity in this topic spurred us to interview 13 women directors of college and university counseling centers from across the country. We wanted to know what it was like for them as leaders and how they experienced their dichotomous work environment. Using heuristic inquiry, we uncovered a culture clash between contemporary higher education and counseling that further marginalizes women leaders, particularly leaders of care work, by forcing them to compromise their care values and identities. These compromises are inevitable; to embody the role of a leader within the care-less organization of higher education, counseling leaders need to trade off some of their care roles, values and practices for those of the care-less culture. Without these compromises, counseling leaders risk their leadership status and effectiveness in the organization.
You may be reading this and thinking, “Yikes, this seems pretty bleak as a leader in the counseling profession.” Although that was our initial reaction, it also spurred us to consider how this knowledge could be useful. To us, these insights help professional counselors and counseling leaders within care-less settings prepare themselves for the internal (and sometimes external) assault on their values and identities. Also, this knowledge can help start a larger conversation within and outside the counseling field about care-less organizations and how care-lessness influences care work. In the following sections, we describe three ways in which the directors expressed they had to compromise care as a leader within a care-less context and three takeaways for counseling leaders.
As mentioned previously, care-less work is born from our capitalist society that focuses mainly on profits and productivity rather than emotional connection. Bernie Grummell and colleagues in a 2009 article in Gender and Education and Henry Giroux in 2002 article in Harvard Educational Review explain that care-less organizations reward, value and idealize workers who can fully commit themselves to the job, put aside personal time and be unencumbered by any other type of duty. According to Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie in a 2001 article in Organization, higher education has become one such care-less organization, and therefore the presumption is that university faculty and staff, especially the leaders, will embody this ideal care-less worker. But these care-less values are in direct contrast to those of a division focused on care, such as a counseling center. As a result, leaders in these divisions must at times reprioritize their care to better align with the care-less institution. From our interviews, we found that counseling leaders often have to compromise care in the following three areas: care identities, leadership styles and practices, and care values.
1) Compromising care identities. The counseling leaders we interviewed said that compromises to care arose from the competing needs and values of their identities as a director, woman (for some this also included being a mother) and care worker (as professionals in the counseling field). As a result, they were forced to make sacrifices in their care roles given that it was impossible to effectively perform such roles while being the director of a counseling center. For example, one woman shared about her identity as a mother and how the director position affected the time spent with her children. She explained, “I get a call two weeks ago to do a suicide assessment with my kid in the bathtub, and I’m like, ‘I have to call you back, I have my kid in the tub,’ so I need to get my kid to my husband to be able to call back.” Another director echoed similar sentiments in regard to time spent with her father: “The hardest thing is I’ve been on call for so many years. … I can’t just go home and spend time with my father uninterrupted. … It can be a serious lifestyle inhibitor.”
These examples exemplify the ways in which the care-less culture of higher education, and subsequent expectations of its leaders, infiltrate the personal lives of counseling leaders. The care-less culture contrasts with their care role as mothers and family caregivers and at times it was impossible to effectively perform both roles at the same time. Making personal sacrifices in their external care roles could risk their status as leaders within a care-less organization.
Counselors will also need to make professional care compromises when leading in a care-less organization. All the directors we spoke to still maintained involvement in clinical work; however, it was significantly minimized in order to manage their administrative position. One director with many years in her role explained why holding both identities (as care worker and leader) concurrently was nearly impossible. She said, “I started my role as director with a large caseload, but then I was trying to figure out how to be director and I was mediocre at both things — mediocre in the therapy room, mediocre as a director. … I can’t be doing good therapy and be thinking, ‘I forgot to approve someone’s vacation time.’ … I learned that I really needed to be more of an administrator.”
It’s challenging enough to sustain the engagement level involved in doing care work while also juggling administrative duties and expectations. Now add to that the complications that arise when working in an environment where the values of the care-less organization clash with the values of the care work being done. Therefore, being an effective administrator requires counseling leaders to make compromises to their care worker identity in some way.
2) Compromising leadership styles and practices. Another area where counseling leaders will most likely have to make compromises is in their leadership styles and practices. The directors we interviewed expressed that their leadership style is servant or feminist based, both of which are driven by care-oriented values such as collaboration, transparency and support. But at times they had to compromise those values and adapt a style that was more authoritative, political and guarded to navigate the murky waters of the greater care-less organization. One director explained why these changes needed to happen in her position: “I’m more guarded outside our office, in part because … I think there’s competition among departments. … There’s a bit of gamesmanship, so I need to be more strategic.” This statement reflects how our values as counseling leaders are compromised at times in a care-less organization to effectively do the job, such as obtaining appropriate resources.
3) Compromising care values. Counseling leaders may also have to make compromises to their care values in care-less settings. These compromises come as a result of the care-less cultural norms inherent to care-less environments. For example, students and their guardians may make demands of the university that are not necessarily in the best interest of the student’s mental health. But because the student (and whomever is financially supporting their college endeavors) are the “consumer,” the university is likely to appease these individuals. Middle managers of the institution, such as counseling center directors, are then subjected to following these decisions made by university leadership, without regard to care values. These compromises can range from keeping a student at the university when it may not be in their best interest to shrinking individual services or expanding group treatment in order to treat more students. Therefore, counseling leaders are forced to let the consumer dictate what is the care plan versus what they, as professionals, know would be most beneficial.
Lessons for caring care-lessly
Learning how care-less contexts affect care leaders helps demonstrate the conflicts and unique challenges that arise for counseling leaders within higher education. These findings from our interviews with directors of counseling centers provides three important takeaways for other professional counselors who are already leading or will be leading counseling centers within care-less settings.
Lesson 1: Expect to feel conflicted. It was evident from our interviews with these directors that counseling leaders should expect to feel conflicted regularly when working in care-less settings. That is because care work leaders must reconcile their personal, and perhaps divisional/departmental, roles and values with those of the organization when they are in direct conflict to those of the organization. Research such as Simon Black’s 2015 article in Open Journal of Leadership supports this finding that care work leaders in care-less settings have internal conflict because of contradictory values. These leaders should also expect to feel conflicted because sometimes they will need to make sacrifices that come at the expense of their care identities. While counseling leaders may expect, and prepare for, ethical or legal challenges in their positions, the clash of personal and professional values may be less expected. By understanding this before entering the field, counseling leaders can reflect upon these compromises and prepare by doing things such as creating a plan as to when and how they may want to make such sacrifices.
Lesson 2: Expect to become flexible. As noted previously, we discovered that counseling leaders in care-less contexts often had to alter their leadership style when navigating spaces outside of their care division. Therefore, counseling leaders should expect to be flexible in their leadership approaches if they are going to get their care divisional needs met in a care-less organization. Although servant leadership can help individuals manage very challenging work obligations, as explained by Emin Babakus and colleagues in a 2010 article in Services Marketing Quarterly, it has been shown to be less effective in organizations that have more masculine-oriented values, such as care-less organizations, as described by the findings of Yucheng Zhang and others in an article published in Asia Pacific Journal of Management in 2021. When counselors in higher education lead a care division within a care-less organization, they must be ready to shift leadership styles based on what’s needed in the moment. Therefore, counseling leaders should be knowledgeable of multiple leadership styles, recognize when it is best to use practices associated with each style and be prepared to apply these different techniques.
Lesson 3: Expect to be held accountable. The last takeaway for counseling leaders in care-less contexts is that compromising care can come at the expense of client’s or patient’s well-being and the care leader is most likely going to be held accountable. To us, this compromise is the hardest to stomach, and greatest call to action, as a care worker. We described earlier in this article how care-less organizational leaders may at times make decisions that affect care divisions and go against the values and professional judgment of counseling leaders. As a result, the clients or patients may suffer and view the care division as the culprit, and the organization is not likely to take the blame given its care-less values. This sabotages the leadership of care leaders. Counseling leaders should be aware of this when entering into care-less contexts and have a plan for how to manage conversations with leadership when such issues arise. This grim reality should also initiate conversations and more research around care-less cultures, including how they impact quality care and who accepts responsibility for such compromises to care.
In summary, it is important for professional counselors to understand that it is impossible for them to embody the values of their care worker identity while simultaneously working as a leader within a care-less organization. The inability to maintain both identities concurrently results in compromises made to one in order to embody the other. Therefore, counseling leaders in care-less settings should understand that compromises to their care identity must come in order for them to maintain their leadership role. As counseling leaders, this brings us to a crossroads. As we continue to expand our leadership into other industries, especially those that are care-less organizations, we must choose a path. We can either prepare ourselves to compromise our values and identities to fit into the care-less culture, or we can choose to confront the culture of care-less organizations. The latter choice raises several questions: Can care workers truly change the culture of a care-less organization? Do the care-less leaders need to be the ones to start a culture shift? Could counseling leaders be the catalyst for care-less culture changes? There’s only one way for us to find out.
Lindsay Johnson is a licensed professional counselor and outreach coordinator at Rowan University’s Counseling and Psychological Services in Glassboro, New Jersey. She specializes in the treatment of disorders of over-control and is the team leader for the Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy consultation team at Rowan’s Wellness Center. She recently completed her doctorate in educational leadership at Rowan University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ane Turner Johnson is a professor of educational leadership at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. She teaches research methods and conducts research on issues related to higher education governance and policy making.
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