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Insider: Deborah Gillis

Catalyst president Deborah Gillis: “The government taking leadership and setting targets really serves as a role model, reinforces an important message, which is that what’s good for women is good for business”

Who Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of Catalyst. Gillis, a Canadian, became the first non-American head of the New York-based, global organization in 2013. Catalyst champions gender diversity and the advancement of women on boards of directors and in the C-suite.

Involvement In June, the Ontario government announced new gender diversity targets for provincial agencies and departments and called on public companies to do the same by 2017. Its announcement drew on the recommendations in a Catalyst study it commissioned on global gender diversity policies and programs. At the same time, the province—which provided the impetus for the current “comply or explain” regime on diversity introduced by the Ontario Securities Commission in 2014—also named a steering committee of corporate directors and other experts to help it implement the recommendations in the report.

Listed What was the genesis of the Catalyst report on which Ontario’s new targets and recommendations are based?

Deborah Gillis The government engaged us to measure and assess the progress that’s happening in terms of the representation of women in leadership positions in Canada and to assess emerging trends and best practices from around the world that would help to inform strategies for Canada. They’re following up on the initial “comply or explain” regulations, to assess what’s happening and where we need to go next.

Listed Besides reviewing policies and results in other jurisdictions, your report examines the importance of board renewal mechanisms. What were the most important findings?

Deborah Gillis For a long time, Catalyst has been consistently saying that what’s really important when we look at the representation of women on boards is that leaders step forward and take action. It’s not necessarily the type of action that is taken [that matters most], but that there is a concerted commitment and focus of attention. And what’s significant for me in this report is that the five-year historical trend data that we collected really emphasizes that point—which is if you look at board renewal, if you look at the issue of having policies in place that explicitly include a focus on gender diversity as one of the considerations in the recruitment of directors, there’s accelerated progress.

Listed Research on boards shows that while assessment and renewal efforts are widespread, term and age limits—both singled out in the report—aren’t popular. What are your thoughts?

Deborah Gillis I’m not going to speak for other directors as to why they might like or not like a particular mode. But what I will say is in the case of our analysis…board renewal mechanisms including turnover, term limits, age limits, etc., have demonstrated that increased representation of women is one of the end products of [their use]. So we’re pointing out that these are some options available to help move the needle forward.

Listed How do the new targets for government agencies and departments feed change in the private sector?

Deborah Gillis Clearly, the government taking leadership and setting targets really serves as a role model, reinforces an important message, which is that what’s good for women is good for business. But I think they are also sending a message to business leaders that says to serve the market you must look like the market. The other point here is that by having a commitment to diversify agencies, boards and commissions of government, that helps to provide a pipeline of diverse directors who then have governance experience that can be applied in both private and public company boards.

Listed We recently published a feature that said culture change must follow compliance before diversity takes hold. Can you speak to that in this context?

Deborah Gillis In our report we highlighted some of the experiences of the banks in Canada and I think if you talk to many of those in Canada’s banking sector, they would describe a journey from compliance to commitment. Where they would describe the benefits for them as an organization is when they made that journey to commitment, when they understood and embraced the business case, the talent imperative and the competitive advantage that came from having more diverse perspectives reflected around their decision-making tables.

Listed Many diversity advocates cite statistics that show it improves bottom-line performance. Yet that research has also been challenged. Is there a risk in arguing the business case rather than campaigning for diversity on equality grounds

Deborah Gillis From my perspective—and this comes from dealing with business leaders around the world—the dialogue has moved beyond the business case to ‘How do we get it done?’ And that’s what really encourages me about the report and the fact that the government has accepted the recommendations. The focus is on ‘How do we make change? What have we seen that works that accelerates change?’ Because that’s where I believe the majority of business leaders are today.

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