The gender thing

Several counsellors report that they see more women as clients than men. When asked ask why this is, many suggest answers that might seem predictable, or even stereotypical, such as: ‘it is more culturally acceptable for women to share their personal stories; women are more comfortable discussing feelings; men aren’t in touch with their emotions; men don’t naturally seek help; they are conditioned not to discuss their feelings,’ and so on.

However stereotypical these views may seem, it is hard to ignore the influence of our social norms and the traditional classifications of gender roles and attributes that are assigned to men and women within our culture. As a wider issue, the subject can provoke understandably emotive responses from both men and women. What we are prepared to accept and what we feel should be challenged can be divisive issues.

But in counselling there is another factor that is hard to ignore – there are more women counsellors than men, and here the numbers are even more heavily skewed. Of course this isn’t a bias that just applies to the counselling and psychotherapy professions. It is similar in nursing and primary education, for example.

But this point is important because there is often a tendency for potential counselling clients to choose (where they have a choice) a counsellor of the same gender as themselves. One reason could be that some issues brought to counselling concern gender conflict. In these circumstances a potential client may feel that their issues would not receive a sympathetic hearing from a counsellor of the opposite gender, or that the counsellor simply would not understand.

Admittedly this isn’t universal. Some clients prefer a counsellor of the opposite gender, and others might consider the gender of their counsellor to be an entirely irrelevant issue. Much will depend on the potential client’s perception of their own issues and how they imagine a male or female counsellor would handle these or react to them. But the experience of many counsellors I know does suggest that the gender of available counsellors is an important factor.

Whatever the underlying reasons for gender disparities in this field, neither gender has a monopoly on personal difficulties or the need for emotional support. If we make a broad assumption that counselling needs amongst the general population might be spilt roughly 50/50 between men and women, it is hard to escape the conclusion that amongst men there is a significant unmet need that isn’t being addressed.