Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Counseling Connoisseur: Fostering female mentorship in counseling

By Cheryl Fisher August 31, 2022

My cell phone lights up with a text from my 15-year-old client. He is mad at his parents who are constantly arguing and often use him as a pawn, and he has skipped school to make a point. He took his bike and rode to a local convenience store. His text says, “I will show them!”

In the process of calling my client, I get another call: It is his father. The call goes to voicemail, and he leaves a message saying that he is worried because his son left a note that he is running away. He has called the police and wonders if I have heard from his son.

I am torn. I want to maintain the trust of my client, but I also recognize that he is a minor and could be putting himself in harm’s way. His parents are extremely dysfunctional and are no doubt blaming each other for their son’s disappearance.

I take a deep breath and then pull up the phone numbers of three women who have served as my professors, clinical supervisors and now dear friends. I text, “I need a consult now. Are you available?” Within seconds my phone lights up again. When I answer, I hear the calm voice of one of my mentors. I summarize the situation and my concerns. She reiterates that my client is a minor and regardless of how dysfunctional the estranged parents are, they need to know the location of their son. After processing with her, I decide to call the father and provide him with the son’s location. I also point out for the 100th time that he and his ex-wife need to seek counseling to better navigate co-parenting because the current situation is too stressful for their son. The father thanks me and hangs up.

I immediately call my client to let him know that his father is on his way to find him and to give the client space to diffuse from the morning’s event. I apologize for the breach of his confidence and remind him that as a minor he could be in harm’s way by running off. I validate his frustration. And I ask for his forgiveness. He pauses a moment and then says, “Yeah, I figured you’d have to tell my parents. I am mad … but not at you. We’re good!” Then he sees his dad’s car pull into the parking lot and says, “I guess I’ll see you in session.”

I let out the breath that I felt like I had had been holding since my client’s initial text and call my mentor to thank her for the consultation and support.

The benefits of mentorship

Mentorship is when a more experienced person provides guidance to a less experienced person. The relationship may be formal (e.g., programs for emerging leaders) or informal (e.g., naturally occurring relationships that may develop between student and faculty). In a 2011 article published in Counselor Education and Supervision, L. DiAnne Borders and colleagues found informal mentoring relationships to be more “visible, meaningful, comfortable, individualized, effective, and long-lasting.”

Stephanie Maccombs and Christine Bhat, in 2020 article published in the Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy, identified two areas where mentorship relationships can be most impactful: career development and psychosocial development. In addition to providing a way for the mentee to make connections in the industry, research consistently finds that engaging in a mentoring relationship is associated with positive outcomes for both mentor and mentee. For example, people who receive mentoring are more likely to experience career satisfaction and advancement. Additionally, students in mentoring relationships are more likely to complete dissertations and take advantage of professional leadership and research opportunities. This is especially true for female students.

Women in counselor education

Currently, there is not much data on women’s leadership in higher education. Ashley Gray, a senior analyst for the American Council on Education (ACE), studies leadership patterns in higher education and recommends that a deeper dive into the intersectionality of identities and experiences are needed to inform policy and practice of higher education (see Gray’s article in the 2021 edition of ACE’s International Briefs for Higher Education Leaders).

Although there are more women enrolled in higher education and appointed to junior faculty roles, too few female leaders exist in counselor education. Female leadership styles have historically been found to emphasize collaboration and teamwork which tend to promote innovation, and we need more innovative and transformative leadership to help navigate the existing challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Systemic barriers

Women in higher education must often navigate competing efforts. These include balancing family and work responsibilities, navigating pregnancy and childbirth with the tenure time frame, and establishing relational networks that may be diminished by a patriarchal social structure. The pandemic further highlighted and exacerbated gender inequities: The increase in virtual learning brought the classroom into the home and caused women in higher education to navigate remote work and child care.

In their article “Only second-class tickets for women in the COVID-19 race. A study on manuscript submissions and reviews” (published in PLoS ONE in 2021), Flaminio Squazzoni and colleagues used the term “she-cession” to describe the disproportionate gender disadvantages created by the pandemic. Women submitted fewer manuscripts, participated in less research and applied for fewer research grants during the pandemic. However, there appeared to be an opposite impact on men in higher education, with more men publishing academic works during the pandemic.

Challon Casto and colleagues noted in their 2005 article published in the Journal of Counseling & Development that female counselor educators often lack the inside knowledge of internal structures and politics across department and university structures. This places women at a disadvantage in traditional “good old boy” systems that thrive on strong networks. The authors recommended creating a formal and informal system that connects female graduate students and marginalized students with mentors to help navigate the unspoken rules of graduate school and advancement.

Women’s Inclusion Mentorship Framework

Maccombs and Bhat created the Women’s Inclusion Mentorship Framework (WIMF), a model of mentorship specifically for women in counselor education programs. The WIMF provides mentorship opportunities and leadership development to any interested female student or faculty member. Based on their extensive review of research of higher education and mentorship in counselor education, Maccombs and Bhat identified four areas emphasized in the WIMF approach: (a) a relational-cultural focus, (b) quality mentors and mentor-mentee matches, (c) vision and plan development and (d) mentoring interventions specific to counseling and women.

A relational-cultural focus

Research consistently finds that mentorship relationships in counselor education contribute to psychosocial and clinical growth and, as noted by Maccombs and Bhat, to “a sense of empowerment, increased insight, increased self-efficacy” that results in mutual respect and empathy. Therefore, Maccombs and Bhat recommend that mentorship relationships are fostered between mentor and mentees who self-identify as women. Women mentors emphasize nurturing the relationship and encourage interconnectedness and the sharing of empowerment and authenticity. Interventions in line with this approach include self-reflection, self-care, connection to groups (such as in group writing) and recognition of the collective accomplishments of other women in the academic community.

Quality mentors and mentor-mentee matches

Quality mentorship can be challenging. Faculty are inundated with responsibilities and even the most well-intended mentor may fall short if they do not have the time to commit to the relationship. Additionally, incompatible pairing can be frustrating to both mentor and mentee. Mentors need ongoing training and support to be effective and sustainable. Maccombs and Bhat suggest that female mentors actively recruit other women in counselor education programs to a meet-and-greet event at the beginning of the academic year. This approach allows for an informal connection to occur organically between mentor and mentee, as mentors and mentees exchange information regarding research interests and academic and leadership experiences. And it also reduces the chances of incompatible pairing.

Vision and plan development

Maccombs and Bhat also recommend that that counselors outline the expectations of the mentorship relationship. Research indicates that clear expectations are associated with a more effective and satisfying mentorship experience. Additionally, mentees are encouraged to identify clear indicators of their academic and career vision. These could include increasing industry networking or scholarships such as publications or conference presentations. In addition to performance indicators, leader attributes and behaviors can be explored in a more measurable approach by using Chi Sigma Iota’s Principles and Practices of Leadership Excellence or the Dynamic Leadership in Counseling Scale — Self- Report (developed by W. Bradley McKibben and colleagues).

Mentoring interventions specific to counseling and women

Maccombs and Bhat encourage counselor education departments to consider allowing two to four hours of dedicated mentoring time a month. A flexible meeting schedule that works best for the mentor and mentee will be more successful. Additionally, a family-friendly approach that allows for child-care options or virtual meetings will be supportive of female mentees and mentors who may be caregivers. Service, research and teaching success include learning how to navigate these demands and other obligations. During pre-enrollment interviews, I encourage student applicants to approach their graduate degree as a “family degree” by recruiting the support of their partners, friends and family members in a variety of ways, including outsourcing some tasks and setting healthy boundaries. For example, family members can help with setting timers for lunch breaks on the weekend when the graduate student is immersed in research and writing papers.

According to Maccombs and Bhat, additional strategies around research and service include “being persistent, … avoiding personalizing the barriers, staying true to one’s personal plan or vision, and engaging in self-care.” It also helps if you are surrounded by a support system who can cheer you on during challenging times, such as dissertation editing.

Focusing on service activities that align with your areas of expertise or personal interests can create an extension of your personal worldview. My research interest in nature therapy, for example, has led me to be more engaged in sustainable ways and serve as the Green Office Ambassador for my counseling program. In this role, I helped the department identify ways to be more responsible with resources and sustainable in practices.

Finally, creating an environment of collaboration will aid in accessing the resources and knowledge to be successful in scholarship, teaching and service. Recently, I identified an area for growth at my university around research support for online faculty, who are mostly women in my department. I met with executive leadership and discussed my observations and suggestions. This resulted in plans to form a student and faculty clearinghouse for resources (e.g., research projects, grant opportunities) and a forum for trainings and mentorship on research development, implementation and publication.

Conclusion

Research indicates that mentorship relationships promote growth and satisfaction, professionally and personally. Women are often disadvantaged by historical academic and professional structures. But the WIMF provides one approach to capitalize on the mentorship relationship between women.

I have been fortunate in my career because I have always been surrounded by wise and empowered women. Women who dared to offer their secrets of success and wisdom in mentorship. They have shaped me professionally, informed me clinically and ultimately transformed me personally.

Whether it was providing me with feedback to hone my clinical skills, observing and ever so gently illuminating countertransference observed in a session, or simply bearing witness to my struggles of navigating work, family and graduate school, these women crafted a web of support as well as strategy that continues to sustain me as a clinician, counselor educator and administrator of a counselor education program.

I am forever grateful to the wise women who not only taught me how to be a strong clinical counselor but also guided me into my role as a counselor educator so that I may also mentor women entering the field of counseling.

 

In appreciation to my mentors, Sharon Cheston, Gerry Fialkowski and Rev. Anne Stewart.

 

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Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and associate professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online master’s in clinical counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Stu

    As a man entering this field in which only 25% of therapists are men, It’d be cool to see something like this in the works for male-male mentorship!

    Reply

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