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Celebrating Women in the Helping Professions on International Women’s Day

Claudine Ribeiro - Director of JPCCC


The celebration of women across the globe on the 8th of March is always an opportunity to highlight the important contributions that women have made, in various industries and professions. The fields of psychology, social work, counselling and therapy are no exception to this. In addition, within this realm women have historically often encountered much discrimination, prejudice and inequality, just as their counterparts have in various other industries, and so have worked hard to rise above this and claim their space in this.

Working in a therapeutic setting, it is interesting that 91% of staff members (social workers, psychologists and registered counsellors) are female. The roots and creation of psychology were very much in the realm of the male psychotherapist - Freud, Skinner and Jung come to mind. In the early 1900s, about one out of every 10 psychologists in the United States was female. At this stage, women were often blocked from studying anything at university, degrees were withheld, and were most often seen as being more worthy of needing psychological assistance than giving it. It is fitting therefore to celebrate the advances and achievements that women have made all around the world in the various female helping professions. In particular, women have been able to more accurately shape the narrative of women’s mental health challenges today – no longer can the female gender be considered just neurotic or hysterical.

I asked my colleagues to help me understand the world of the female helping professions and how their gender has assisted them to work in these professions. These are their responses.

A colleague recalled her early days as therapist in the 70’s and 80’s. She described how difficult it was to work in a politically unstable situation, and feeling that the injustices of the country motivated mental health professionals to assist across the Apartheid era racial divide. As a woman she felt a particular call to assist, but often prevented from doing so. At other times, circumstances left her feeling unsafe and exposed. There were high levels of stress at the time, due to the ongoing political and social trauma in the country, which led to women therapists feeling vulnerable on the one hand, but also stretched and needed on the other.

Many colleagues indicated that they use their maternal nature to bring a certain quality of trust to their relationships with their clients. As a motherly figure, clients are able to form a bond of trust with their female therapists, and even repair the sometimes negative relationships of being mothered that they have experienced. A colleague referred to the inherent trust placed in her nurturing qualities by parents and children, who seem to find her non-threatening as a result of being a woman. Others referred to the ability to understand, to listen and reflect, as well as women’s resilience, strength and dedication. This allows them to hold and contain the most difficult of cases. Maternal natures of being kind, gentle but firmness also come through and give the child an experience of attaching to a healthy relationship.

It has been found that as a woman it is easier to listen, be gentle and show empathy when it comes to counselling. There is a perception that strong listening skills and empathy are associated with female therapists. While we believe that these are attributes of all skilled therapists, a colleague said that she felt that the role of nurturer or comforter is still viewed as inherently female. As psychology has evolved beyond it’s more clinical or medical orientation (as it was viewed at its inception), so to have the expectations of the profession changed – as we recognise a need to recognise and care for the vulnerable parts within our clients.

Another colleague said “It allows us to hold and contain the most difficult of cases. Our maternal natures of being kind, gentle but firm also come through and gives the child an experience of attaching to a healthy relationship”. Males are often discouraged from expressing feelings whereas woman are more encouraged to do this from a young age. This potentially allows for more woman to develop qualities needed for this profession”.

And so perhaps it has to do with the way woman are perceived and the maternal qualities that are thought to be needed for doing such a job. As such males may now be more reluctant to take on the role of nurturer. Women in the helping professions have a drive to want to support and foster the growth of the people around them. They provide a warmth and a sense of security that is essential for our professions, and they enable us to connect and build a deeper relationship through a genuine sense of trust. “I can provide a safe space for both men and women by providing the safety of the maternal figure. My empathy is a lot of times more than just a professional skill, but also a personal quality. Sometimes clients just need the safety of working with a female due to their life experiences and the role that male figures have had in their lives”.

It is generally felt that on a daily basis women experience systematic oppression, sexism and abuse that, in addition to trauma, results in women feeling inferior and doubting their own abilities. Being a woman in this industry, makes us more cognisant of when the issues women face can be attributed to these external factors, and as such we are able to make therapy both a healing and an empowering process. In addition, being a female can assist especially in working with adult female clients, being able to identity some of their struggles and difficulties, specifically as women.

There are challenges though. Women therapists who have not had children of their own experience this as being perceived as a disadvantage, or as negatively impacting other’s perceptions of their abilities. It is socially expected that women reaching their thirties will be married and have had children by this age, and when this is understood to not be the case, they often get typecast as being less than good enough “women” and therapists. There are challenges revolving around not being taken seriously as a professional. There are times clients or their parents disregard recommendations and suggestions due to the therapist being a young female professional. Expectations can be really challenging to manage as everyone seems to hold different views on what a woman should be like and what they should be able to manage. This may further impacted by considerations such as race, religion, gender identity and sexuality. Not all women subscribe to an identity that includes motherhood, or playing a maternal role to their clients, and this should not be seen as purely the role of female therapists only.

Working in the NGO sector means that helping professionals can often not sustain their families on the wage provided, and this is an ongoing problem, as the professions are often seriously underpaid and as a result unappreciated. Professions stereotyped as traditionally female are often undervalued – leading to a perpetuating cycle of financial dependence for women working in these areas.

One colleague said this “It was implied to me by certain community members that because I was going to be a woman therapist, I would have to sacrifice my hours for my family because it is the line of work that could allow for it and because I was the woman. It was not a question of if that was my choice or not. This is still a reality for many women in our line of work”.

Others indicated that It has been their gender that is seen as the therapist rather than their personality, passion or intellect. It is also often expected that women, be good listeners, should respond calmly to whatever is said to them and should always be caring or motherly.

Another colleague feels that gender still plays a role in the value placed on professional contributions – “Although there are many female therapists, I do still find that male voices are often given greater weight in group settings. While I do think this is often unconscious – I do feel that we need to develop an awareness of our own internal biases in challenging well entrenched patterns of interaction”.

The reality of gender based violence presented another challenge within the therapeutic setting, with colleagues needing to acknowledge the risks associated with working in this profession: “Another challenge is having male patients who at times can make you feel quite uncomfortable or intimidated. Or men supposedly seeking psychological assistance may only there to make inappropriate comments of a sexual nature. We still have a long way to go as a society before being fully safe as an independent female practitioner”. Another colleague added “There is always the added stress of having a level of judgement on my appearance and thus competence as a female therapist”.

Sadly having many more female therapists to some degree perpetuates the notion that therapy is a woman’s “game” and that men should not talk about their feelings or be vulnerable. Having more men in the industry, serving as male ambassadors and role models of social consciousness would encourage other men to engage in mental health practices and bring mental health to the forefront of our society. One colleague worried that her gender may lead to her clients feeling alienated, or believing that women may not be able to relate to the challenges that they are experiencing.

In the writing of this article, I believe it is important to remember that not all women are the same, and not all experiences are universal. We come from different backgrounds, cultures, and religions, and we all have different demands and expectations. For me, this article has highlighted the need for woman to encourage each other and build each other up – and that as mental health professionals, we too need empathy and understanding.

If we can get that right, then we can live up to the expectations placed on us a female therapists. As our senior staff have said “It has been a great privilege to help children and people heal their past traumas, and assist them in growing and developing their true selves in the therapeutic process” and “Being a woman therapist over many decades has taught me that hope and resilience are precious qualities to be treasured and nurtured both in ourselves and in our patients. We are all in these battles together and we need to find and value our common humanity and aspirations if we are to move forward”.

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