Despite recent gains in the share of women in leadership, women are leaving the workforce at much higher rates than men and women’s participation in the labor force dipping to their lowest levels in decades.

That’s why it’s critical that organizations make intentional efforts to invest in retention, support, and training for women leaders. In this live, we had Katja Henaway, Founder, Women’s Business in  conversation with Sandra Colhando, women leadership coach, DEI champion and Co-Founder, TransforMe Learning together explore how organizations can begin their journey in women’s leadership development, clarify the different stages in this journey, promote inclusivity, measure progress effectively, and gain actionable insights to foster an equitable and diverse leadership landscape.


  1. Katja Henaway shares her personal journey and connection to Indigenous communities, emphasizing the importance of contextualization in women’s leadership programs. The article discusses the stages of feminine leadership development in organizations: Initial Exploration, Emerging Initiatives, and Flourishing Leadership.
  2. Organizations excelling in diversity tend to perform better, while those struggling to diversify leadership may have lower team performance. The challenge many corporations face in Australia is hesitance to take the initial step in promoting diversity, which can be overcome by dispelling assumptions and starting with innovative programs.
  3. Initiatives to promote diversity should begin with small, impactful actions, and individuals at all levels can advocate for inclusion within their organizations. The article highlights the need for more granular contextualization in women’s leadership programs for Indigenous women, women of color, and various subsectors. Outsourcing specialized programs to businesses with expertise can help organizations quickly launch successful women’s leadership programs.
  4. Key success metrics for women’s leadership programs include diversity in senior leadership roles and the cascading effect of diverse leaders on teams. Challenges faced by women of color include limited accessibility to career development programs, institutional bias and racism, and internal cultural and religious challenges.
  5. Mentorship is identified as a crucial aspect of women’s leadership development, and the importance of diverse mentoring experiences is highlighted. Building a strong business case with evidence and results metrics is essential to influence internal leaders to invest in diversity and innovation. Starting with a pilot program can help showcase positive outcomes.


Sandra Colhando – What’s your personal story that led you here in supporting Indigenous women, women of colour and doing the amazing work that you do?

Katja Henaway Thank you, Sandra. It’s a privilege to be here today, joining the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation in Sydney. I have a deep connection to indigenous communities, having been born and raised in North Queensland by my Torres Strait Islander grandparents. I grew up within Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal communities.

After a period of living and working in the UK and traveling extensively, I returned to Australia in 2008. As a mature student, I pursued a Bachelor of Community Management at Macquarie University, which provided me with a deeper understanding of Indigenous history and the policies shaping Indigenous Affairs in Australia.

Following my degree, I specialized in Indigenous engagement, collaborating with organizations to design tailored programs for Indigenous communities. My passion for creating unique programs led me to design initiatives for people of color and women of color across the country.

Sandra ColhandoI know you’ve partnered with organisations with governments as well. What would your advice be for an organisation that’s unclear about why and where to start this journey?

Katja HenawayMy advice is that contextualization is highly effective. I’ve often been asked by various organizations and leaders why they should tailor their programs. Some are concerned it may segregate or divide, but the key is this: to boost engagement, contextualization is crucial.

For instance, universities use indigenous pathway programs to increase the enrollment of indigenous students. Similarly, when they aim to attract more refugee and migrant students, they create specific programs tailored to their needs. The same principle applies when transitioning from university to the corporate world, but often, we don’t see this level of contextualization in corporate environments.

What works in schools, universities, and higher education also holds true in the corporate sector and government.

Sandra ColhandoAnd you’re saying there’s not much happening in the corporate sector? This kind of contextualise? 

Katja HenawayIn many corporations, we often assume that because they already have a diverse workforce, engagement with diverse employees isn’t a concern. However, when it comes to advancing career leadership development and supporting diverse leaders, especially in promoting and hiring more diverse leaders, contextualizing leadership development becomes incredibly valuable. It’s an area where corporations can explore further.

Sandra ColhandoBefore delving into the results section, it’s worth noting that organizations worldwide are at various stages of feminine leadership development. We’ve identified three main stages in our work:

Initial Exploration: These organizations are in the early stages, primarily driven by a general awareness of the importance of feminine leadership. They might be asking, “Should we explore this trend that others are adopting?”

Emerging Initiatives: In this category, organizations have already begun experimenting with various women leadership initiatives. While they may have seen some results, these efforts might not yet be fully streamlined. They are building their expertise in this area.

Flourishing Leadership: These organizations have women leaders actively claiming leadership roles, with a more balanced ratio of women in leadership positions. They recognize the business benefits of promoting diverse leadership.

In your experience, have you noticed specific indicators that reflect an organization’s maturity in their feminine leadership efforts?

Katja Henaway Certainly, I’ve observed significant differences in organizations, particularly in sectors like large consulting firms, banks, financial institutions, and many legal firms. These organizations typically maintain diverse workforces, resulting in higher efficiency and overall high performance.

On the flip side, organizations struggling to diversify their leadership often exhibit lower team performance. This contrast becomes more evident when comparing these corporate entities to government institutions. In government institutions, leadership roles tend to be predominantly held by individuals of Anglo-Celtic, white, European backgrounds, reflecting limited diversity in the bureaucracy and upper echelons of leadership.

The key takeaway here is that organizations in need of performance enhancement can draw valuable lessons from the successes of large legal and consulting firms in promoting diversity and reaping the benefits of improved performance.

Sandra ColhandoI found your insights interesting, and I’d like to add that the tech industry is another sector that actively addresses diversity. However, it’s intriguing to note that even in industries like tech, which emphasize diversity, there can still be a struggle to achieve equal distribution and representation in positions of power.

I’m aware that you’re doing significant work in this space, collaborating with governments and conducting workshops for women from diverse backgrounds. As organizations and institutions embark on this journey, what, in your opinion, is the most substantial challenge they will face? And how do you believe they can effectively overcome it?

Katja HenawayA significant challenge faced by many corporations in Australia, I believe, is their hesitance to take the initial step. This reluctance often stems from a lack of awareness about the people of color leadership or First Nations leadership sectors, including their size and capabilities. Assumptions are made that these sectors are small, and there is uncertainty about the feasibility of running programs or filling program spots.

These assumptions need to be dispelled as they are not helpful. From my experience, when developing such programs, although they often begin on a small scale, they tend to grow rapidly. Many of these programs are innovative and unique, often being the first of their kind. Consequently, the market is often unaware of their potential for success. With the right support and leadership, these programs can achieve significant success in a relatively short time.

In essence, the fear of starting is a barrier that needs to be overcome in order to make meaningful progress in promoting diversity and inclusion.

Sandra ColhandoI can relate to that. The fear of starting often comes from a lack of data and concerns about results. Initiatives can appear more challenging than they are.

From an organizational standpoint, I suggest starting with small, impactful actions when exploring feminine leadership.

For individuals within organizations, regardless of gender or hierarchy, promoting diversity can be achieved by advocating for inclusion within your sphere of influence. Your role, no matter how small, can make a difference in fostering a diverse and inclusive work environment. It begins with small steps, and collectively, these efforts drive meaningful change but how can I still promote this with whatever role in space I have?

Katja HenawayRaising awareness is essential because decision-makers may not be aware of existing programs or the experienced program designers available. Creating awareness about successful programs and the engagement they drive is crucial.

I recall my initial contact with Women and Leadership Australia, where I reached out through their online form. I noticed they lacked indigenous women in their program. After a conversation, we decided to partner. So, reaching out to organizations, offering your expertise, and letting them know you’re here to help can be a great starting point. I was fortunate they responded to my message.

Sandra Colhando – It’s a powerful and straightforward approach—sometimes all it takes is seeking opportunities and proactively pursuing them.

I recently spoke with another woman leader who shared a similar experience within our community. She highlighted the absence of a formal women’s leadership program in her organization. Despite this, she actively sought out suitable programs and advocated for her own development. Many organizations allocate budgets for employees to pursue learning programs, so individuals can take the initiative and nominate themselves. This shift empowers participants and leaders, as they actively seek opportunities, fostering greater connection, recognition, and positive outcomes.

In the realm of specialized leadership development, it’s crucial to avoid clumping different categories together. Customization is key to address unique needs effectively.

So I have two questions around it. How does the approach to women’s leadership differ for indigenous and then coloured background and women of non Indigenous communities?

If you could probably share two three unique points, each of these intersections under women? What would that be for an organisation or anyone working in this area to focus on?

Katja HenawayThe term “women of color” has gained prominence in recent years, but it’s interesting to note that some subsectors within this network may not identify with the term. Indigenous women, for example, often see themselves as First Nations women, while African women might prefer to be recognized as black women. Cultural identity plays a significant role, and many individuals identify with their specific culture.

From a First Nations perspective, the need for contextualized programs is evident, as their experiences and requirements in Australia differ substantially from migrant and refugee women who have settled here. While women of color may relate to certain aspects, First Nations women have a distinct set of needs and experiences.

To cater to these diverse needs, the trend is moving towards more granular contextualization. Separate programs for First Nations women, women of color, and various subsectors like Pacific Islander women and South Asian women are becoming increasingly important. These separate programs can better address the unique experiences and requirements of each group.

The need for this level of contextualization is a recent development, reflecting the evolving understanding of diversity and inclusion.

Sandra Colhando Shifting the focus to organizations in an emerging state, those who are just beginning their diversity and inclusion journey can find it overwhelming. For them, initiating a comprehensive women’s leadership program can be challenging. The question is, how can we make it more accessible for them to take that crucial first step?

Katja Henaway The quickest and most efficient way for an organization to launch a program like this is to outsource it to a business with expertise. Instead of developing the programs in-house, consider finding a local business with a proven track record in this area and outsourcing the work to them. This approach leads to quicker success as the external business brings its network and experience to the table, relieving the organization of the burden of developing such programs on its own.

Sandra Colhando –
I like that approach—bringing in specialists to support and exploring partnerships.

Indeed, the results and impact of a successful women’s leadership program are crucial. It’s not just a matter of running the program; understanding the success metrics is key. The impact can be impressive, with notable outcomes such as:

Improved NPS and Inclusion Scores: A shift from 70 to 88% in NPS and inclusion scores.

Enhanced Gender Diversity in Leadership: More women claiming and advancing in leadership positions.

Personal Growth and Career Advancement: Participants overcoming mental barriers, addressing gender biases, and becoming mentors for others. So in your view, what are some of the key metrics you’ve experienced from your shared way an organization can expect or look forward to a successful women leadership programme?

Katja Henaway –
Key metrics often revolve around boosting diversity in leadership. When a diverse person takes on a senior leadership role in an organization, it tends to have a cascading effect on the entire team. We’ve seen this impact in various fields, including politics, where the elevation of a few diverse leaders quickly influences the entire landscape.

One of the most critical metrics is the presence of diverse women in senior leadership roles and the subsequent diversification of the entire organization.

Indeed, a colleague recently shared an intriguing insight with me—the power of one to three. Research has shown that when you have one woman leader in an executive role, you often see the emergence of three more. This research is fascinating, especially as my team is predominantly composed of women. It’s not about bias, but it certainly amplifies diverse voices and representation within the organization.

It’s amusing that, while I work with many influential women, they sometimes create teams comprising exceptional First Nations women leaders. I wholeheartedly support women’s empowerment, but it’s important to remember that diversity encompasses more than just gender.

Sandra ColhandoI want to pick up two questions from the audience. What are some of the top challenges faced by women of colour from your experience, maybe top three challenges that you commonly see?

Katja HenawayCertainly, some challenges are prevalent, particularly concerning career development. Many career leadership programs in Australia tend to be easily accessible to Anglo-Celtic and white European individuals, which creates a disparity for First Nations people and people of color. This accessibility gap poses a significant challenge for women of color and various women’s groups.

Institutional bias and racism are also substantial challenges, supported by numerous reports and anecdotal evidence. Furthermore, we encounter cultural and religious challenges, as individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds face certain limitations based on cultural and religious beliefs. Managing these internal challenges can be a hurdle for our progress.

Sandra ColhandoYeah. I was gonna mention the third bit was also us holding ourselves back. Because yeah, some way there could be a bias that we are outsiders to it. So claiming the space. here for a second question is how do you see the role of mentorship in women’s leadership development? And what has been your experience with it?

Katja Henaway – Absolutely, mentorship is incredibly important, even though it’s often underfunded. Research consistently underscores its effectiveness. In my personal experience, both as a mentee and mentor, I’ve found it to be extremely valuable. It’s essential to be open to mentoring from individuals of different ages, backgrounds, or genders. Sometimes, being mentored by someone much younger can offer powerful insights and growth opportunities, challenging traditional mentorship norms.

Sandra ColhandoI do want to take one last question –  For the L&D folks here, any tips on how to influence internal leaders on investing in the space of women leadership development?

Katja HenawayInfluencing and securing investments can be challenging within your organization. It’s often helpful to look for successful examples in other organizations or gather data and feedback from such cases. Building a strong business case with evidence and presenting it to your organization can be effective. Many consulting firms and online reports offer data about the gaps in women of color’s career leadership development and the success of investing in such programs. Building a compelling business case is crucial.

Sandra Colhando – Absolutely, including a results metric is key. Start with a pilot program and measure the results. When you can showcase positive outcomes, the need for further influence diminishes, and progress becomes more straightforward.