Ian Mitchell – supporting women in elite sport

In this blog #YesSheCan bring you the thoughts of a Male Advocate of Gender Diversity. Ian is Head Coach of Great Britain Swans Australian Rules Football team. Alongside his day job he dedicates his time to increasing participation of women in sport! Ian provides some really positive insight and tangible actions about how to be a  positive male ally and influence and support change!


Tell us a little bit about you….

I trained as a secondary school PE teacher, but am now working in a special school for children with social, emotional and mental health needs as the Special Educational Needs Coordinator and P.E. lead. I’m also fortunate to be the Great Britain Swans Australian Rules Football Head Coach after my playing career finished having been captain of both England and Great Britain.


Why is diversity important to you?

Diversity is vital in modern society to ensure all elements of that society are reflected in the decision making that directly affects them. Diversity also allows for role models to develop within cultures and societies that will inspire others to want to achieve.

As a leader it is important to not surround yourself with all like-minded people else you create an echo chamber, and everyone ends up agreeing with the leader or person in perceived authority all the time. Real progress in that organisation will always be hindered if this is the case. Challenge is healthy for leaders who truly want their organisations to develop and this challenge will come through diversity of the people that you surround yourself with.


What challenges do you face when you try to be more diverse?

There is definitely a negative connotation of the female game in Australian football. At the professional level it is a relatively new addition to the AFL and is still struggling with comments and remarks over the quality and speed of the games. With social media now these ideas and themes permeate across the globe quite quickly so it can be quite hard to change people’s ingrained thoughts but we are working hard trying to do that.

Have you ever experienced a time when you’ve felt excluded or different?

To be honest I don’t recall a time like this, certainly not for an extended period of time. I count myself as incredibly fortunate and privileged in this regard.

What can we do better to be more diverse?

Making sure there is equal value given to the male and female game at all levels; from the professional league in Australia to the grassroots game here in Europe. We need to make sure high profile members of organisations such as ourselves recognise this but more importantly that they live and breathe these values as that is the only way, in my opinion, to ensure diversity thrives in Australian football. One of my aims as Head Coach is to try and develop some female coaches to work alongside me and the rest of the team.

How are you trying to positively influence diversity?

I’d say the main focus at the moment is empowerment; empowerment to make own decisions, empowerment to contribute to the group. The best example I have of this is a recent squad zoom chat re: the group’s culture. The ladies decided that it wasn’t a chat for me and asked me to leave them to it, ensuring that they all felt secure and confident to have a voice and to make the culture their own.

Another effect is that we are beginning to nurture leaders within the group, encouraging all members to have a voice irrespective of experience, age or role.

For this empowerment to take place it is important to build the confidence of the people involved in the organisation. This cannot be done on false praise though; it’s important to frame your conversations with positivity and constructive feedback. There is nothing worse than empty praise except maybe unsubstantiated or poorly explained criticism. Honesty is key to promote the confidence and empowerment of people.

How do you address difficult conversations with male and female colleagues about diversity?

I have found the best way is to be open and honest; sometimes people won’t realise what they have said or done has offended. If at all possible I like to try and take any personal feeling out of the conversation so it is a matter of facts as opposed to ‘it made me feel this way’ or similar.

What positive females role models have you had in your career / life and how have they shaped you?

I’ve had so many strong female influences in my life and I’ve seen them as this for a number of reasons. For me, the term ‘positive role models’ comes in very different forms across all walks of my life.

– Strength in overcoming hardships

– Strength in blocking out difficulties and succeeding in spite of these

– Strength in thriving In competitive environments

– Strength in determination, focus and tunnel vision

– Strength in positivity, productivity and performance

These people range from my wife, members of our immediate family, friends and head teachers that I have worked for.


Ian has provided some great thoughts and practical advice to support diversity. If you’d like to learn more about the GB Swans and AFL Europe, please click here!

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