"Maybe We Should Ask For Directions, Dear?"

by Maia Freeman and Dr Richard Bolstad

NLP And Gender

Very few NLP articles by either sex actually discuss gender (maleness and femaleness). This is intriguing because NLP's focus on language and personality differences could be expected to provide some interesting perspectives on this issue. As we will show, there is reason to think that women may not be getting as much value out of NLP as men, and that their voice is not being heard as fully as men's voice in the NLP community. In this article we want to invite discussion of gender issues in NLP, beginning by examining:

  1. The different results of NLP change-work for men and for women
  2. The makeup of the NLP community in terms of gender
  3. The research on metaprogram differences between men and women
  4. The central notion of interdependence as an emerging women's model of mental health
  5. Ways of adjusting NLP to match gender preferences more effectively

Is NLP More Effective With Men?

An interesting controlled study of NLP use in Psychotherapy was organised by Martina Genser-Medlitsch and Peter Sch(?)tz in Vienna, Austria in 1996 (Sch(?)tz et alia 2001, p 232-233). The test group were seen by members of a group of 37 NLP Master Practitioners (22 men and 15 women) who used a full range of NLP techniques with great success. In the assessment after NLP therapy and at 6 month follow-up, there was an interesting gender difference. Men improved more than women on 40% of the symptom dimensions as identified by the study. This difference was especially marked in the assessment of how fully clients felt in control of their life, and in reduction of paranoid thoughts, aggression, depression and anxiety.

This result suggests that NLP is more effective with men. The question is, is it the gender bias of the subject that determines the NLP results, or is it the gender bias of NLP that determines the subject's results.

Is There A Gender Bias In NLP?

The gender mix of the NLP Practitioner community itself seems slightly biased in favor of women. A review of NLP Practitioners trained by Transformations International Consulting & Training over the last few years shows that we trained 226 men (43.2%) and 297 women (56.8%). At the level of NLP Trainer, we have fully certified 15 women (57.7%) and 11 men (42.3%). While we don't have everybody's international figures, those that are available suggest a similar balance throughout the western world. For example, a 1990 study of a combined Master Practitioner/Practitioner training in Amsterdam by Ed and Marianne Reese reports 20 men (37%) and 34 women (63%) (Duncan, Konefal, and Spechler 1990).

But while women and men are both well represented in the field, women may have less voice in the world of NLP publishing. Surveying the last three years of articles in the New Zealand NLP Journal, Trancescript, we find 70 articles by men (69.3%) and 31 by women (30.7%). The level of contribution to International NLP publications is similar. In a year of Anchor Point magazines (Oct 2001 - Sep 2002) we find 38 articles by women (33.6%) and 75 by men (66.4%). A February 2003 survey of NLP books available at Amazon.com revealed 121 authors of whom 81 were men (66.9%) and 40 were women (33.1%). Well over half of NLP Practitioners are women, and they write less than a third of the articles and books. (see Figure 1)


Figure 1: Gender Balance In NLP

Let us be clear before we continue, that women do not "inevitably" write this much less than men. The New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists has exactly 200 full members on its register, of whom 55 are men (27.5%) and 145 women (72.5%). The NZAP journals for 2001-2002 published 17 articles by women (63%) and 10 by men (37%). Less than a third of psychotherapists are men, and they contribute just over a third of the written text. In that field, unlike NLP, women's publications represent women's presence rather fully.


Figure 2: Gender Balance in Psychotherapy

Gender Differences In Communication And Metaprograms

Do men and women have different ways of experiencing life and of understanding NLP? If so this imbalance in written contributions, with men's views being far more represented, may point to a significant factor in shaping the results of NLP with women. NLP models and theories may contain presuppositions that match men's ways of sorting experience better than they match women's. Do such different ways of sorting experience exist?

The answer is that there are some well researched differences between men's and women's metaprograms(to use an NLP term for personality traits). In general research into personality traits, the difference does not seem marked. In the world's most commonly used personality profiling system (Myers-Briggs personality profiling system, see Wiggins, 1989), research suggests that about 55% of women make decisions based on feelings and values, and 45% based on logical reasoning. The statistic is reversed for men. This 5% difference each way is statistically significant, but it still means that it would be na(?)ve to try and predict decision-making style from gender alone. There is similarly a statistical difference in men's and women's ability to decode non-verbal signals in a conversation. Women score higher than men in the ability to decode emotional responses from voice tone and from facial expression, for all emotions except anger (where men score higher). But as with the Feeler-Thinker difference, the variation is small (Matlin, 2000, p 206-208). Out of six possible correct scores, men average around 4 and women around 4.5. Such differences are significant, but not significant enough to claim that men and women "come from different planets", as some authors have done.

One place where we can notice larger gender differences is in the type of psychiatric disorders which men and women suffer from when under pressure. While the overall rate of psychiatric disorders (including drug and alcohol abuse and personality disorders) is similar for men and women, there are certain psychiatric disorders which are more common for women and certain disorders which are more common for men. Adult women are twice as likely to present with depression as are adult men (though there is no difference in the rate amongst children). They are three times as likely as men to present with phobias, including agoraphobia, and about ten times as likely to present with eating disorders (Matlin, 2000, p 432-465).

However, the most dramatic differences are found when we check expectations and perception of events. Dale Spender conducted research where she had a man and a woman in a conversation together. In each case the man spoke for more minutes than the woman. The participants were then asked whether they felt that they had a fair share of the conversation. Most of the men felt that they had not had a fair share of time, even when they actually spoke for 75% of the time (Spender, 1989). It would not be surprising to find, after this, that many men in the NLP community doubt our claim that two thirds of NLP publications are by men.

Differences in expectation even alter the results of research. For example, there is much research showing that women have more difficulty than men performing a visualization task where they mentally rotate a geometric figure (this is actually the largest difference found in any spacial skill). However the difference disappears if the subjects are told that the skill being tested is one useful for interior decorating -a traditionally female area of skill in western society (Matlin, 2000, p 176). The research certainly reveals a gender difference, but perhaps not quite the one that the researchers expected. It seems that much of the result is based on women's expectations as to their ability.

Gender Differences In Responsiveness To Others

Even more significant in the application of NLP, is research suggesting that women are more responsive to expectations and feedback from others generally. In one study, participants perform a cognitive task, and then rate their level of self-confidence. A few minutes later, they receive a comment from the researcher, either telling them they did well or they did poorly (the comments are assigned randomly and are unrelated to their actual success). The participants are then asked to rate their self-confidence again. Female self confidence surges up an average of 40 points with positive feedback, and drops an average of 60 points with the negative feedback. Male self confidence shifts one point up with positive feedback and six points down with the negative (Matlin, 2000, p 186-188). Such comments affect women more both emotionally and cognitively. Further research shows that women not only feel more affected by such evaluations, but are more willing to believe the opinions expressed in others' evaluations of them (Roberts and Nolen-Hoeksema, 1994). They are more likely to have, in NLP terms, an External Motivation Source (Charvet, 1995, p 45-58).

This difference in "motivation source" certainly goes some way to explaining the disparity in the results found in the Austrian study of NLP therapy, mentioned at the start of this article (Sch(?)tz et alia 2001, p 232-233). Here, one important difference in results involved whether the person felt in charge of their life. Women did not "improve" in this symptom area as well as men. Being in charge of ones own life, or "at cause", is an important notion in NLP. It is useful to consider that truly being in charge of ones life and "at cause" may have quite different meanings to men and to women. It may be that our framing of this notion in NLP presupposes a view of mental health that is more in keeping with the way men have already learned to behave. Men have learned to consider their own opinions as more important than others' opinions, as a measure of their own success. In that sense, they are "in charge of their own lives". By contrast, women, it seems, may consider others' opinions more fully.

The Presuppositions of NLP imply that life is "systemic" (Dilts 1998, p 7-10). This means that an individual person's results cannot be considered separate from the systems they interact in. In this model, no human being is ever totally autonomous, and a healthy response requires both identifying one's own causality and noticing the feedback loops in which one participates with others. This is the key foundation for Transforming Communication, an NLP course on co-operative relationships which both authors have taught. In this course we emphasize the importance of hearing other's opinions and responding to their concerns, as well as the value of stating one's own concerns and opinions. Despite its recognition of the systemic nature of life, most NLP theory seems to us to have downplayed the first of these sets of skills (responding to others). Not only have women developed this first set of skills far more fully than men, but also the response they get from these skills provides their criteria for success. Training in Transforming Communication (Bolstad and Hamblett, 1998) values the skills and criteria significant to both genders, balancing autonomy and systemic interaction.

The Feminist Critique In Psychotherapy And Media

We noted above that in the field of Psychotherapy, women's views are more fully articulated than in NLP. One explanation is that in the field of psychotherapy, gender differences were recognized in the 1970s and 1980s and a "Feminist critique" of psychotherapy evolved to respond to them. The result of this critique has been an increasing satisfaction with psychotherapy amongst women, and an increasingly large contribution by women to psychotherapeutic literature. Thus Phyllis Chesler, author of a severe critique of therapy called Women and Madness (1972) later wrote (1990) "Despite my early critique of institutional psychiatry and of private patriarchal therapy geared to high income clients, I have come to believe that women can and do benefit from feminist therapy." NLP as a discipline had already radicalized and broken out of the psychotherapy mould before this new understanding of women's issues occurred in the therapy field. We may have missed something of value.

One of the key changes in attitude that this rethinking of psychotherapy led to was a reframing of the notion of "being in charge of ones life". Feminist therapist Miriam Greenspan refers to the standard joke in which men are considered to be incapable of asking for directions when lost. She points out that it is a strength to be able to ask for directions when one is lost. A man who cannot ask for street directions is not actually more "at cause" or "in charge of his life" than a woman who asks. Greenspan notes, "Women who fail to recognize their strength in being able to depend on others or who fail to recognize the ways that men depend on women, end up thinking of women as "dependent" and men as "independent". Such women often feel they've failed when they don't adopt a male style of autonomy - both in relationships and at work. But in many cases this "failure" is due to the fact that women do not really want to become autonomous in the way that men have been. They do not wish to become competitively embattled against others, or to see their own individuality as contingent upon the renunciation of their needs for intimacy or family." (Greenspan, 1983, p 298-299). This lack of recognition of men's dependence and the resulting sense of failure women sometimes feel in not being autonomous is explained clearly in Shelle Rose Charvet's article "The Purpose of Womanhood?" in Anchor Point (Charvet, 2003)

Shelia Ernst and Lucy Goodison urge that therapy support women in this useful human skill of inter-dependence. "Part of our therapy must emphasize our need to nourish ourselves and to seek nurturance from others." (Ernst and Goodison, 1981, p 315). Greenspan urges that, for the woman caught in male presuppositions about independence, "...to overcome her first type of dependence (the impossible feminine demand that a man can make her feel good about herself) she had to reclaim her right to the second type of dependence: her authentic need for intimate connection." (Greenspan, 1983, p 292).

Similar differences in gender values regarding autonomy and dependence are echoed in studies of a popular gender medium, the magazine. In a study of femininity as conveyed in women's magazines by Marjorie Ferguson (1983), the top value to emerge was that of self-control, particularly in carrying out duties and responsibilities towards others. In her comparative study of masculinity, New Mens Magazines, Maia Freeman noted that "In the men's magazines, the most dominant values emerging from the men profiled were their Work, their own Self-concept, and their Status... put bluntly, men seemed more concerned about themselves than about others." (written under her former name M.Snell, 1992, p 75). Observing that only one of sixty articles had friendship as a dominant value, she says "The loneliness of the male's world is emphasized in the lack of items under this category... Only one profile placed value on a male-male friendship; the other occasional incidences were presented as a field for competition." (M. Snell, see 1992, p 78)

Some men have argued that the traditional notion of the independent male does not actually serve their own sex well. "It can be hard for men to accept that 'real strength is recognizing your own weakness' since this threatens our very sense of masculinity." says men's movement activist Vic Seidler "This makes it difficult to realize that it is just this kind of sharing that others are demanding of us. It is this which promises to give relationships greater depth. It is also difficult for our partners when we swing between denying that we have emotional needs at all to feeling totally overwhelmed by our needs." (Seidler, 1985, p 156 and 174) The particular dilemmas faced by men in their attempts to be "autonomous" may well contribute to the psychiatric problems which are more prevalent for men (problems such as denying pain by alcohol abuse).

Individual And Social Change

A key change that the Feminist critique brought to psychotherapy was the understanding that the changing of society and the changing of individuals go hand in hand. The systemic nature of change is acknowledged in NLP (ie real change requires changes in the systems in which we are embedded). The NLP term "ecology" usually assumes the importance of examining how a client's relationships and social systems affect their symptoms. Women's critiques of psychotherapy expanded this idea of ecology to include all of society.

One place in NLP where many NLP trainers already recognize the importance of social realities is in the experience of children labeled by the school system. Richard Bandler says, for example, "When I was asked to work for a school district, I had a few things I wanted to go after. One of them is the whole notion of "learning disabilities", "minimal brain dysfunction", "dyslexia", or "educational handicaps". Those are very important sounding words, but what they all describe is that the teaching isn't working." Why is this reframe useful? Because, as Bandler notes, "I'd rather not explain failure that way. I'd rather think about it as a "teaching dysfunction", and at least leave open the possibility that we can learn to change it." (Bandler, 1985, p 125). This is the advantage of widening the frame to include the whole school system. By enhancing the collective power of children as a group, we may be able to truly change things for individual students. If we work individually with each "dyslexic" child, we are only dealing with the symptoms.

The same is true of women's and men's experience, for example, of male violence. If we work only with each injured woman, we are only dealing with the symptoms. Consider the fact that in a 1995 New Zealand Department of Justice report (Hitting Home), one in five New Zealand men reported having physically abused their partner in the last year! In research by the report's author, David Shapcott, 30-40 per cent of New Zealand men said that under certain circumstances they would rape a woman. In the United States 1.5 million women are raped annually. In India over 5000 brides who have been unable to pay their dowry are killed by their new in-laws every year. In some countries United Nations estimates say violence against women affects over 50% of the population. (Abramovitz et alia, 2002, p 156-157).

There is no point in placing bandaids on each case of violence, when there is a deep gash in the artery of society's attitudes towards violence. In that context, Miriam Greenspan's cautions "What the conventional view of rape as an individual trauma ignores is the fact that getting back to normal for any woman means getting back to the reality of rape as a normal fact of female life." (Greenspan, 1983, p 275). She says of Feminist therapy that "Ultimately the goal is to help a woman see how her own power as an individual is inextricably bound to the collective power of women as a group." (Greenspan, 1983, p 247).

The need for collective solutions is not only present in relation to violence against women. We noted earlier that more women than men are depressed. The following are some more specific factors which research has shown to be correlated with depression in women (Matlin, 2000, p 436):

It is clear that, for many of these factors, each individual woman's experience is affected by the general social situation of women. Confirming for a woman client that it is realistically challenging to live with several young children means empowering her to identify actual changes in her lifestyle which may make life more fun (rather than just changing the submodalities in which she thinks of her life). And supporting her to act with other women to change this lifestyle opens up the possibility for her to feel in charge of her life in a way that is interdependent rather than "autonomous" in a traditional male sense. Indeed, in the social context in which women find themselves, their ability to be interdependent has been an important learned skill which successful therapy can help develop, rather than deny.

Interdependence: Virginia Satir's Example

Returning to the roots of NLP, we have an excellent model of interdependent work in the practice of Virginia Satir. The first NLP model (the metamodel) provides a series of questions, and was modeled from Satir (Grinder and Bandler, 1975). Research suggests that women ask more questions than men in conversations (Baird, 1976), a feature of their interest in and attention to other's opinions. A change process based on the metaphor of questioning may make more sense to women practitioners, inviting their clients into an interdependent communication structure. It may also give more control to the client than one based on the metaphor of verbal directions (including "embedded commands", see Bandler and Grinder, 1975, p 239).

But the metamodel is only one of the things we could learn from Satir's work in relation to interdependence. Satir gives another great example of working in a way consistent with this principle. "Some years ago I took on an assignment in a southern county to work with people on public welfare." She explains (Satir, 1993, p 204-206). "What I wanted to do was show that everybody has the capacity to be self-sufficient and all we have to do is to activate them. I asked the county to pick a group of people who were on public welfare, people from different racial groups and different family constellations. I would then see them as a group for three hours every Friday." Satir asked each person what their dreams were and what stood in the way of their reaching them. "One woman shared that she always wanted to be a secretary... She said "I have six kids, and I don't have anyone to take care of them while I'm away." "Let's find out," I said. "Is there anybody in this group who would take care of six kids for a day or two a week while this woman gets some training here at the community college?"

The results were dramatic. Satir reports "Everyone found something... The woman who took in the children became a licensed foster care person. In 12 weeks I had all these people off public welfare. I've not only done that once. I've done it many times." By accepting their need for mutual support, Satir demonstrated their ability to change the social context in which their problems occurred, and hence solve their problems. Her intervention with this one woman, for example, changed almost all the factors listed as correlating with depression in women (above). Satir explains about gender issues in particular, "I regard the emerging balance between women and men as being as earthshaking as the discovery that the world is round instead of flat." (Satir, 1988, p 379).

Note that Satir's aim was to demonstrate that people could be self-sufficient. However, for her, this self-sufficiency, this being "at cause", included their acting socially and asking for assistance from each other. She is encouraging interdependence rather than isolated independence. While not all NLP practitioners will be able to work in community groups as Satir did, all of us could benefit from modeling this attitude and supporting our clients to empower themselves interdependently.

Recognizing the power of interdependence would be one step towards creating an NLP that shares men's and women's wisdom more equally.


There is some evidence that NLP processes as they are presently applied are more effective with men than with women for many symptoms. Also, although both men and women are attracted to and succeed in NLP as a field, the voices of women seem to be under-represented in NLP literature. In the field of psychotherapy, by contrast, the emergence of a (feminist) women's perspective in the 1980s has resulted in far more equal contributions to psychotherapy. Research shows that there are male/female differences in the preference for certain metaprograms. There are several statistical differences including a tendency for men to be less successful at decoding body language and to make decisions more by thinking. More markedly, women tend to have an external motivation source and men an internal motivation source. While these differences seem to be learned and are not universal, a lack of understanding of them may well account for differences in NLP results.

The Feminist critique of psychotherapy has interesting implications for us in the field of NLP. Women writers in the psychotherapy field have suggested that the traditional view of individual autonomy as a criterion of "mental health" may presuppose a way of behaving that is more comfortable for many men than it is for many women. A more balanced view, these women writers say, would allow for the interdependence of human beings, valuing the human skills of being able to ask for and give help. It would also recognize that social and personal change are interlinked, and that empowering individuals often includes supporting them to discover collective solutions. This more balanced approach is foreshadowed in the work of Virginia Satir, one of the original models for NLP. Weaving the value of interdependence more fully into our work in NLP must be an important step towards delivering an NLP which meets both men's and women's needs.


Maia Freeman is an NLP Master Practitioner and teacher whose Masters Dissertation focused on presentation of men and masculinity in the media. She is a radio program host and can be reached at maiaf@actrix.co.nz
Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz