Gender comes preloaded with stereotypes as well, a fact that cannot be ignored, but along with that must be the understanding that male and female therapists have gone through similar or the same training to graduate, and they must complete the same exam to be licensed as a therapist. A male therapist may be more directive, a female therapy more empathic and yet both may find success as long as they can connect with the client. In fact, the connection between the therapist and client can be a bigger factor in successful therapy than gender or even theory, a finding that is showing in up in more studies as the topic is researched.
The question of gender has been the focal point of studies for decades, and the results have changed over time to the point that therapist gender is generally believed to not have a notable effect on the outcome of therapy. It should be noted that over the course of the profession, the theories that guide psychotherapy have moved from more directive, therapist-oriented to more exploratory and client-centered. It is not a stretch to describe the former as more “masculine” and the latter as more “feminine.”
A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology from 1982 found that female therapists were rated more empathic with their clients. But the idea of empathy has become more pervasive in the field in general. A later review in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy in 2007 reported little effect in same-sex pairings of client and therapist. They also expanded on the gender factor to include age and race. The authors of the study had expected some effect. But not finding any, they concluded: “Perhaps the good news is that competent, creative, and compassionate therapists can apparently often transcend whatever limits are potentially imposed by their age, gender, or skin color.”
It is inarguable that the psychotherapy profession has been increasingly dominated by women and reasons abound for this change, but gender is not one of them. Men and women each bring their strengths to the therapy session, and each have worked on improving weaknesses through their training. Style can go a long way, but a good therapist will adapt in what ways they can to improve the therapy or he or she will help you find someone else who is a better fit.
Seemingly at odds with the statistics showing a limited effect by gender on therapy, is the research showing the importance of the therapeutic relationship. A potential client may just be able to bond easier with a particular gender of therapist, but easier may not always mean better in these situations. Therapy is supposed to involve work on many levels.
What does matter in therapy is the ability to form a connection, and understanding and worldviews go a long way to building this connection. Many times people go through a few therapists before they settle on someone. Leaving gender by the wayside may speed up the work done in therapy by getting to the issues quicker.
For additional reading on this topic:
• Dr. Karen Ruskin
• Psychology Today
This topic of the week was written by Brian Swope, MFT.