Since 2015, I’ve spearheaded several initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion in tech products and the workplace that were recognized with the UK 2020 Women in Tech Changemakers award.
An inflection point in that trajectory was when, in June 2018, I launched my website focused on diversity and inclusion to broaden my audience as a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) advocate, a role I’d been actively playing alongside my corporate job as Head of Customer Support.
Six months later, I shared my website with an assistive technology expert that I met during a MOOC. She asked me if my site was accessible and shared a post from The Life of a Blind Girl blog where the author — a blind woman that uses a screen reader — shared her frustration about people making their websites inaccessible and 10 tips easy tips to mitigate the problem.
I was floored and disappointed with myself. I had assumed that because I considered inclusion one of my values, the result of my actions would automatically reflect it. At that moment, I realized the gap between intention and impact.
Moreover, when I broadened my focus beyond women’s equity to other aspects of identity — ethnicity, disability, age — and began to understand the role intersectionality plays in exacerbating the oppression some individuals or groups experience, I discovered two things.
First, “Inclusion is a practice, not a certificate”. You need to continuously update your knowledge about diversity as well as inclusive and equitable practices.
Second, DEI is at play in every interaction that involves two or more persons. And that includes coaching.
Why you should care
Unlike mentoring or consulting, coaching is a partnership between the coach and the client, meaning that the rapport between coach and coachee is non-hierarchical — the client is an expert on their life, and the coach is an expert on the coaching process.
However, both the client and the coach live in the real world, where there are biases, stereotypes, and privileges. Therefore, it’s extremely important that the coach is intentional about how to address the impact of differences with the coachee that may create power asymmetry and exacerbate the systems of oppression the client already endures. Some of those characteristics are gender, social level, sexual preference, ethnicity, (dis)ability, and age, to mention a few.
As Trudi Lebron states in The Antiracist Business Book, “The more diversity you have, the more inclusion you need to facilitate in order to achieve equitable outcomes”.
How do coaches “facilitate inclusion”?
Let’s look at a number of best practices you can implement in your coaching in order to offer clients an inclusive coaching experience.
It’s important that we ensure our clients feel welcome when they start working with us.
In coaching, we may be tempted to focus the onboarding of a new client on explaining our coaching approach and our container — how many sessions, the frequency, and pricing. We may also work to ensure that there is a good alignment with the client about the kind of transformation they want out of coaching.
One oft-overlooked consideration in onboarding is creating a welcoming atmosphere for the client’s physical body and mind. This could be through a conversation or by creating an onboarding form where you ask your client about the following:
- Their pronouns
- Special requirements (e.g. captions, avoiding the use of certain colours, etc.)
- If they have been coached or mentored before
- What approaches have motivated them to achieve a goal
- What approaches have discouraged them from taking action
- What activities help them to think? Some examples are journaling, listening to music, drawing, creating mind maps, and walking.
I personally prefer to use an onboarding form and follow it up with a conversation as needed. One advantage of the form is that it gives the client the opportunity to decide on what they want and don’t want to disclose.
I also find that establishing certain reciprocal disclosure may help to level the playing field. In my case, I’ve added my pronouns to my signature; I inform the client that as a non-native English speaker, automated captioning may not work as well as for English speakers; and I share that my coaching practice is anchored in feminist theory, specifically on acknowledging the effects of intersectionality, systemic oppression, and lived experiences.
As with all professionals, coaches have their preferences — virtual versus in-person coaching, phone versus video, etc. But what about our clients’ preferences and needs?
If your client is Deaf or hard of hearing, coaching them over the phone may not be an option. Chances are that they prefer to meet in person or use a video meeting application that provides on-the-fly captioning.
What about a dyslexic client? Maybe your lengthy emails and requests for daily journaling are a deterrent rather than an enabler of their transformation. An client in the autism spectrum may prefer to keep the video off to reduce the sensory stimulus or may feel more at ease with asynchronous communication such as email.
What about the role of technology? Especially after the pandemic, we have a tendency to assume that everybody is comfortable jumping into a Zoom meeting, sending emails, or using Paypal. That’s not the case, and it’s the coach’s duty to ensure that their clients feel at ease with the tech applications that will underpin their partnership with the client.
3. Your preparation as coach
How do you prepare for a new client? Maybe you go through your notes about how you coached “similar” clients. Maybe you realize you’ve never coached a client with that goal or with that background, and that triggers feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.
The reality is that, either consciously or unconsciously, your brain has already made a “picture” of your client even before the coaching engagement starts.
From the first interaction, even if it’s an email from a person with a non-gendered name — Alex, Rowan, Courtney — your mind already fills in the gaps about characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, sexual preferences, age, etc. And what your brain “decides” is not random but informed by your biases, cultural stereotypes, and even your mood.
How to counter those rules of thumb? Being intentional. Here are some ways to bring consciousness to your practice:
- Understanding your triggers. Maybe you have strong views on politics or religion that, left unchecked, may bias the kind of questions you ask.
- Knowing your limitations. If you feel uncomfortable around people with different backgrounds to yours, don’t use your client as your resource to learn about their ethnicity, country of birth, or disability. Instead, refer your client to another coach and engage in increasing your knowledge in that area of diversity.
- Anticipating your reaction. How would you react if, during an executive coaching session, your client shared that they have been cheating on their partner? Or that they’ve learned they have a terminal condition? Faced with an unexpected situation, your brain may default to a flight, fly, or freeze response. One of the best ways to mitigate an unwanted reaction is to think in advance about how you would respond to it.
Finally, when preparing to meet a new client, I invite you to reflect on the following prompts and welcome the answers with curiosity:
- What do you expect them to look like?
- What do you expect their problems to be like?
- What can you do to prepare?
4. Be willing to ask for help
Certifications, continuous education, and years of experience practicing coaching are invaluable assets, but they can also make you feel overconfident. For example, you may feel that your long list of curated coaching questions is enough to tackle anything your thinking partner may bring to the session.
Unfortunately, that’s not true.
In many cases, providing ongoing inclusive coaching experiences to disabled people, those with a history of trauma, or people weighing the decision of coming out as LBTQAI+ employees at work require specific practices.
It’s your duty to search for support through supervision, peer groups, and training to fill in those gaps. Moreover, you should be willing to refer the client to another colleague or service if you anticipate that you won’t be able to minimize those gaps in your coaching practice fast enough that they don’t hinder your client’s transformation.
5. Factor systems of oppression
Most coaching approaches rely heavily on the power of our minds to shape our reality.
However, helping your client to gain awareness about their limiting beliefs, strengths, and internal resources doesn’t mean assuming that privilege and opportunity are equally distributed.
When a client shares experiences of sexism, racism, or ageism in the workplace and you offer them that “it’s all a thought”, you’re not helping them to access their inner wisdom but rather you’re gaslighting them. More precisely, you’re denying your client’s lived experience and the systems of oppression at play.
Instead, coaching can be a great tool to explore those systemic imbalances, more precisely, an opportunity to help your client to uncover epistemic injustice, a term coined by Dr. Miranda Fricker that describes injustices done against someone “specifically in their capacity as a knower”.
Examples of epistemic injustice are when somebody is not believed because of their identity — testimonial injustice — or when their experiences are not understood, so they are minimized or diminished — hermeneutical injustice.
What if coaching could help your client to get insights into the role biases, patriarchal structures, and privilege play in their life?
6. Overreliance on training within your container
The coaching spectrum of Miles Downer invites us to consider how different activities are more directive than others. Some, like telling, instructing, and giving advice, are more hierarchical, whereas paraphrasing, reflecting, and listening to understand are less directive. Hence, a more directive style can further inequity, if left unchecked.
By monitoring your usage of directive activities and understanding the reasons behind your chosen techniques, you’ll ensure they align with your values around equity rather than come from a place of perceiving your client as “helpless”.
7. Inclusive pricing
You may rely on coaching as your main and only source of revenue. As such, it may be difficult to consider reviewing your pricing scheme to offer your skills at a lower price or for free.
However, you may be fortunate enough to have some spare cycles to make coaching accessible to those that are less financially privileged. If that’s the case, you may want to consider the following ideas:
- Volunteering with an association that provides free coaching to a certain group that may have limited access to paid coaching.
- Providing a certain number of scholarships to your programs to people from underrepresented groups.
- Offering coaching at a reduced price to those with less financial means. You can also use pricing scales for your offering. This episode of the I am your Korean Mum podcast discusses different ways to incorporate more equity into your pricing when serving people with diverse financial circumstances.
- Creating free content such as podcasts and articles.
As a final piece of advice, once you go through this list, I invite you to apply an inclusion lens to other areas of your coaching practice. For example, how well does your website comply with web accessibility guidelines? What about your social media? And how can you embed inclusion, diversity, and equity into your continuous professional development?
Remember, inclusion is a practice, not a certificate.
Dr. Patricia Gestoso is a certified career and life coach, an award-winning inclusion strategist, and a technologist. She helps women and people from underrepresented groups to become their own version of success whilst embracing lightness, joy, and self-compassion.
She volunteers for Queen Bee Coaching, a non-profit service in Manchester (UK), that provides free coaching for women leaders that haven't benefited from coaching due to financial reasons.