Diversity & Inclusion: Should Female Leaders Have Bespoke Gender Development Solutions?

Are you Yes, or are you No? In the first in a series of Diversity & Inclusion blogs, IDG’s Kathie Knell and Johanne Malin take opposing viewpoints in debating whether women should have their own leadership development programmes.



Kathie Knell – IDG Consultant, Deputy Chair of the NATO Gender Committee, Sandhurst graduate

I’m in the ‘Yes’ camp. I have always been an advocate of equality and healthy competition in the workplace with much of my experience shaped by a career in the military.

As the first military female platoon to undertake the Sandhurst ‘Passing Out Parade’ with our male colleagues in the late 80’s, my career, and that of my female contemporaries, was a list of ‘female firsts’. We were the first female platoon commanders. We were the first females to deploy with Infantry units, the first females to compete in the arduous 20km Biathlon Ski Patrol Race and the first females serving on operations with Special Forces. As a feminist, my struggle to address the gender equality gap was a personal crusade!

In my experience, CEOs agree that there’s currently a talent resource in organisations that is somewhat transparent, overlooked, and under-resourced. The question is, whether there should be bespoke leadership solutions for aspiring women leaders, to give them that ‘leg up’ to enable them to compete on the same playing field.

The re-establishment of ‘Women’s Networks’ in the private and public sector indicates the need women feel to share and network. The Women’s Mentor Network (WMN) in the US was launched in 2013, inspired by the concept of circles from the book The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman. Their mission is , ‘empowering women in the Armed Forces to reach their full potential in military service by cultivating strong mentorship networks and communities inclusive of all military and civilian service, gender, rank, and affiliations’. The same networks are offered throughout UK Defence and within the private and public sectors.

This would indicate that Women Leaders need more, to succeed and thrive. I wonder whether women feel this need more acutely where there is a culture of masculine behavior and a culture which maybe at odds with their own personal values? Alternatively, perhaps these networking solutions offer a modern day tonic, a physical and virtual space, reflecting Virginia Woolf’s advocacy of women’s equality in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929).

The Australian Male Champions of Change (MCC) Programme (2013), links the issues of aspiring female talent and cultural change. These dynamics are addressed by sponsoring leadership programmes for talented senior women and by developing CEO male role-models. Former IBM CEO Glen Boreham indicated that “it was clear Australia couldn’t compete on scale – the only way to remain competitive was with skills and innovation and you can’t do that with only half the available workforce”.

The Leadership Shadow is a model used by the MCC to develop female talent and to address cultural barriers to advancement, to increase the number of women across business. This approach is similar to that required in some Middle Eastern contexts, where there needs to be both leadership development and empowerment for women and an assertive approach to understanding and developing contemporary business culture.

With UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond signalling that the doors will be opened to Women in Combat roles in the UK, this will start to put the UK on a par with some of its NATO allies. But maybe we need to look to our Australian Counterparts to consider the dual approaches needed to ensure our aspiring business women thrive and succeed.

While there is a need for organisations to be cogent of their culture and the resulting behavioural norms, it is also equally important to provide leadership solutions to aspiring women. While the Leadership Shadow Model provides practical answers about ‘where do we start?’, the MCC firmly believes the change needed ‘starts with us!’



Johanne Malin – IDG Consultant, formerly deployed in various leadership roles for the Royal Military Police, Sandhurst graduate.

In contrast, I’m in the ‘no’ camp’. I don’t believe that women should be developed separately when our desire is to be included and treated fairly. Separating ourselves only reinforces the misbelief that women have ‘special’ needs around leadership and that it’s our responsibility to fix the problems men have with working with us. How can we demonstrate our value, help break down barriers and address bias if we hide ourselves away? People only appreciate the value of ‘difference’ if they experience it first-hand.

Some of the most transformational development we see at IDG is when people find ways to build high performing teams with people they previously would not have chosen to work with by focussing on strengths and developing inclusive working practices. This requires a high degree of emotional intelligence which, for me, is the reason why we still have unhelpful attitudes towards certain ‘groups’ within organisations. Many of the ‘men at the top’ aren’t aware of their unconscious biases and are oblivious as to how they adversely impact organisational culture and performance. It’s our job to hold the mirror up to them by being present at all times.

I am not against gender support groups, and I appreciate that individually we might prefer the council, support or company of other women but in my experience, in the world of work, my best mentors and champions were men. They helped me understand what the performance requirements were and encouraged me to be myself in pursuit of organisational goals. In fact, it was a long serving, senior male Army Officer who backed me at the age of twenty-six to be the first female Sandhurst officer to command a special investigations unit in the Royal Military Police. He helped me navigate the obstacles and enabled me to bring a fresh new approach to an old school institution.

I feel that one of the most persistent barriers to inclusion is our insistence on labelling our differences and we should stop doing this. Our focus should be on exploiting opportunities to develop self-awareness, challenge prejudice and adapt working practices to enable everyone to bring their best, whole self, to work.
Officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is a perfect example of this; there are no female-only platoons anymore, the Women’s Royal Army Corps was disbanded in 1992 and, by the end of this year, more combat roles will be open to women. If war isn’t about gender, then business shouldn’t be either.

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