Sector News

Say no to the status quo

April 27, 2015
Diversity & Inclusion

Borderless had the pleasure to meet Deborah Gillis, President and CEO of Catalyst, when we shared the stage as panelists on the topic of Diversity during a recent European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) event. Captivated by her insights, we thought we’d keep the conversation going here in the Borderless Leader!

Catalyst is a leading research and advisory organization working to change workplaces and improve lives by advancing women into business leadership. It offers research, events, tools and services that raise awareness of how diversity benefits businesses and provide guidance on how to enact change. 

Deborah, you have made the topic of women’s leadership a priority throughout your career. Why is that?

My interest in women’s leadership dates back many years, as a result of my experiences working in traditionally male-dominated industries. In my political career, I was also involved in employment equity and social justice issues. I’ve therefore seen the business and legislative challenges associated with this topic.

I have had some really wonderful opportunities in my career, and I want to “pay it forward”. I saw myself as a role model for the first time when I was a political candidate. A man turned to his young daughter and said “See she’s running for office.” The little girl replied: “But I thought only boys could do that.” This highlighted the adage “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and I find it to be a great motivator. My role at Catalyst has only strengthened my determination.

What are some of the most interesting findings you have learned from Catalyst’s research into gender leadership?

One of the most eye-opening findings busts the myth that women do just fine in their careers up until the moment they hit “the glass ceiling”. It’s simply untrue. The challenges faced by most women begin with their first job. We have seen that when a post-MBA female takes on her first role, she likely earns less than a male counterpart with an equivalent degree and skill set. This sets her back from the very start of her career.

We have been exploring what’s underneath that. Research shows that when it comes to development opportunities, men get larger projects, larger budgets, more visibility towards leadership, and receive assignments that are considered more mission-critical. Women are not set up for success in the same way, so more focus needs to be placed on this.

Finally, there is an important distinction between a mentor and a sponsor. A mentor talks to you and offers advice. A sponsor talks about you and promotes your abilities. Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored.

Can you offer some tips to help organizations attract and retain female leaders?

  1. Organizations need to change the default setting that says this conversation is for women, by women, about women. They must say no to the status quo. When Catalyst started this work 50 years ago, there was an assumption that women would naturally rise to the top over time. But that simply has not been the case. Organizations need to think differently. Leaders must step up and make change happen through intentional actions such as assigning women to mission-critical projects or through sponsorship.
  2. Organizations need to start asking different questions, such as “What can we do to encourage more women to apply for these jobs?” If women do not spontaneously seek certain roles, ask why they didn’t apply and suggest why they should!
  3. Don’t fall into the trap of the “supply myth”. Too often executives say, “I’d love to have a woman on my Board, but I just can’t find one.” The question is not ‘Where are all of the qualified women?’ The question is ‘Where are you looking?’ Just because you don’t see them in front of you doesn’t mean they don’t exist. 

Can you offer tips for women who aspire to Non-Executive Board roles?

  1. Get operational experience. Manage a P&L balance sheet. Cultivate a niche skillset. Boards are looking for skills gaps to fill. Speak at conferences, get quoted in media and become a known quantity for a specific competency.
  2. Network broadly! Reach out to executive search firms. State your interest in participating on a Board in your CV. Let the CEO you work for know that you have this interest. Let other Sr. Executives know what you bring to the table. Be able to articulate how your unique skillset can advance organizational objectives and enhance the functioning of a business.

About Deborah Gillis

Deborah is the fourth President in Catalyst’s 52-year history. She is also the first internal successor from within Catalyst’s ranks to hold this office.  

Her career at Catalyst includes roles as Chief Operating Officer and Senior Vice President, Membership and Global Operations, where she led Catalyst’s global growth strategy and expansion into India and Australia. Prior to Catalyst, Deborah spent more than 20 years advising decisions-makers in the public and private sectors, including management roles in two multi-national firms. A thought leader and advocate, she twice served as a candidate for elected office, and has made coaching and mentoring of women in her business and political life a personal priority. 

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