Workplaces must appoint more women to executive positions, says president of Catalyst

Published: 25/09/2014
Precedent, 24 September 2014, by Daniel Fish

Catalyst President Deborah Gillis told hundreds of professionals that to increase the percentage of women in senior corporate roles, men must become part of the solution

Gender equality under the law is important — but to achieve real gender equality in the workplace, it’s simply not enough, Deborah Gillis told a crowd of several hundred lawyers and professionals this morning. 

Gillis is the president of Catalyst, a New York-based organization that promotes the advancement of women, and she spoke today at the Person’s Day Breakfast, an annual event hosted by the Legal Education Action Fund

If it were enough, she said, then the statistical landscape in Canada, which has a world-class constitution, would not be so alarming. 

She explained that, in Canada, women occupy just 18 percent of senior positions at the largest 500 companies. And, worse still, among recent MBA graduates, men earn $8,000 more than their female counterparts. 

There are, however, steps that individuals can take to help women advance in the corporate world.  

“When there are board seats to fill,” she told the crowd, “do more than recruit a diverse slate of candidates — promise to fill at least one of those seats with a well-qualified woman.” 

She also asked business leaders to go beyond mentoring young women and become their sponsors. Sponsors offer more than advice: they recommend those women for promotions, and encourage higher-ups to put them in charge of major projects.

Gillis said men can be the most effective sponsors. Because men continue to dominate the upper echelons of the business world, they are often in the best position to “build the kinds of relationships with other highly placed senior men” that allow them to effectively sponsor young women.

At the same time, she said antiquated definitions of gender, when perpetuated, should not go unchallenged.

“When you hear someone say, ‘My husband is babysitting tonight,’ promise to stop thinking of fathers as occasional babysitters and once-a-month chefs and start treating them as co-parents who have equal responsibility for their families,” said Gillis, in a remark that drew loud applause from the audience. 

While Gillis believes young people are more engaged with gender issues at work than previous generations, she ended her talk on a somewhat bleak note. 

“Women have been in workplaces for many, many years,” she said. “We’ve been talking about the importance of women’s rights and rightful place in workplaces for a long time, and yet, here we are. Catalyst was founded 52 years ago. And we’re still here today. And, you know, I tend to think I have job security for the foreseeable future.”

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