Unearthing the roots of gender inequality in the workplace

Tanya van Biesen of Catalyst talks about how gender diverse teams drive better business results and how we can bring about workplace equality

Tanya van Biesen is executive director, Canada, of Catalyst.

Tanya van Biesen
Tanya van Biesen

What is Catalyst Canada and what does it do?

Tanya: Catalyst is the leading non-profit focused on building workplaces that work for women through inclusion.

Since 2000, Catalyst has worked in Canada to address the unique experiences of Canadian working women, through research, education and engagement. By partnering with over 175 companies across Canada, we provide CEOs and their leadership teams the trusted advice and expertise they need to accelerate progress for women and to make positive change in their organizations.

Why is this issue important for you?

Tanya: Growing up with two brothers, my parents expected all of us to work hard at school, attend university and build strong careers. So, as a pretty compliant kid, I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, and went on to work my way up the ladder at a global executive search firm.

But then things took a turn. About five years into my tenure at the firm, I was up for partnership alongside a male colleague who had joined the firm at the same time and was a peer in all respects. In the middle of the process, one of the firm’s senior partners shared that my path to partnership was being challenged because there was some concern that I, a mother of two kids, wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace of travel expected of a partner in a global firm. Interestingly, my colleague’s path wasn’t being challenged – and he was a father of three.

Ultimately, I was able to make my case and make partner. But I had to ask myself: where had this ‘travel question’ come from? And why had it applied to me and not to my male colleague?

It really hit home that the roots of gender inequality in the workplace are deep, and they are often hidden or unconscious. I became passionate about driving change, and in my current role I have an opportunity to do just that.

What’s the state of gender diversity in Canada for corporate boardrooms and at the executive level?

Tanya: The numbers tell us that progress for women has been slow. According to the most recent review of TSX-listed companies, women occupy only 16 per cent of board seats and 16 per cent of all executive roles in Canada. Even more sobering, 31 per cent of issuers have no women on their boards at all. The truth is, women continue to be underrepresented at leadership levels across almost every sector.

 What needs to be done to change that?

Tanya: While there is no silver bullet answer to this question, there are several approaches that we know to be successful given our experience working with companies around the world. Let me point to three of them:

  • Embed your inclusion strategy into your talent strategy, and ensure that it has a direct linkage to the business strategy of the organization. These relationships are critical because without them, diversity and inclusion will be reduced to an ‘off the side of the desk’ project that will never gain traction.
  • Measure what matters. Gain a true understanding of your workforce composition using data. Once you have a baseline, set targets for progress and measure the organization against these targets. The most effective organizations understand that what gets measured gets done.
  • Ensure that everyone understands their role in building inclusive workplaces because every one of us has a role to play, regardless of our title or level in the organization. This means that we need to engage our male colleagues just as much as we do our female colleagues, because we will not realize workplace equity for women without the support and ally-ship of men.

Why is it important for companies to have a more diverse workplace?

Tanya: Aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do if we value integrity and fairness, advancing women has proven to be an incredibly smart business strategy. A huge body of research now shows that gender diverse teams make better decisions, drive higher levels of innovation and are more productive than homogeneous teams. Put simply, gender diverse teams drive better business results.

Another more urgent reason is this: Canada is battling a talent crisis, caused by an aging population and a slowdown in population growth. As a nation, we face growing competition from an increasingly well-educated world, and we’ll fall behind if we can’t fill the demand for highly-educated, trained and talented people. Women have an important role to play in ensuring Canada’s future economic health.

Interviewed by Mario Toneguzzi, a Troy Media business reporter based in Calgary.

© Troy Media


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