Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Power and Gender in the Supervisory Relationship

(Note: Doctoral students in CED 781a Counseling Supervision during Fall 2010 completed abbreviated literature reviews on a topic of individual interest. They wrote both a research summary and a summary for practitioners. Here, we present the summaries for practitioners. Please let us know if you have questions or suggestions for future summaries. L. DiAnne Borders)

By Elizabeth Likis-Werle, MS, LPC
Researchers and practitioners agree that power is inherently present in supervision, that power plays an important part in the supervisory relationship, and that how power is experienced can affect relationship dynamics and professional growth. What is lacking is consistent information on exactly how power interacts with gender and is experienced by both supervisors and supervisees. Is there a difference in same sex vs. opposite sex dyads in supervisor perceptions or supervisee assertiveness? To what extent do other factors like personality, culture, and individual variables contribute to power and gender differences in supervision?
Because of gendered socialization over the years, women supervisors may be reluctant to claim power as within their capacity or may not be aware of their own personal power. Some women may use power but may be less willing to identify it, as it may be viewed as a less feminine trait. The agreement on what to call power is inconsistent across disciplines, which makes measuring it difficult. Though there are a few measurements that capture the essence of power language, they are outdated and use masculine-oriented terms. We need a more relational, female infusion of terms used to describe power such as influence, social power, interpersonal interactions, empowerment, and relational connection. It would serve the counseling and supervision fields more effectively if we could embrace the term power and acknowledge its contribution to the process. Then we could measure how power is truly used and experienced in therapeutic interactions and remove the stigma of women claiming themselves as powerful, help supervisees develop more fully.
Some of the obstacles in applying our knowledge of power dynamics are:
· The research on power in supervision has small sample sizes which may have been too small to show significance differences
· Many of the studies were more than 15-20 years old. In fact, the most cited study and one of the most comprehensive studies involving gender and power in supervision was published twenty years ago (Nelson & Holloway, 1990)
· There is also conflicting information about male and female preferences for what kinds of power they use. Some of the findings indicate that, though there are not differences in supervisor style based on gender, the language used in does supervision differ depending on the gender of the supervisee. Specifically, female supervisees were less likely to get support to assert themselves from both male and female supervisors and, when given the chance, female supervisees were more likely to defer power
The question remains that if practitioners across the fields of counseling, sociology, communication, management, psychology, and social work agree theoretically and conceptually that power differentials exist and that gender plays a role in this, how then do we make progress to address the needs of female supervisees? Here are some tips for supervisors:
· Supervisors need to increase awareness of their biases around females.
· Adapt more collaborative language and style to empower female trainees in supervision.
· Become familiar with feminist supervision models to help address power imbalances.
· Recognize the need for connection and intimacy as a significant part in fostering development and growth in female supervisees.
· Check out Szymanski's (2005) Feminist Supervision Scale addressing the gender and power differentials in supervision.

For further reading, see:

Falender, C. A. (2010). Relationship and accountability: Tensions in feminist supervision.
Women & Therapy, 33, 2-41.
McHale, E., & Carr, A. (1998). The effect of supervisor and trainee therapist gender on supervision discourse. Journal of Family Therapy, 20, 395-411.

Nelson, M. L. (1997). An interactive model for empowering women in supervision. Counselor Education & Supervision, 37, 125-139.

Nelson, M. L., & Holloway, E. L. (1990). Relation of gender to power and involvement in supervision. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 37, 473-480.

Szymanski, D. M. (2005). The Feminist Supervision Scale: A rational/theoretical approach. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 27, 221-232.


  1. Thank you for the reference. This is a big help for me. Thanks again for a great read too. :)

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