The Canadian division of an organization that advocates for the advancement of women in the workplace is defending its decision to pick a male executive again to be the chair of its advisory board, a move some are calling a missed opportunity.

Catalyst Canada recently named Victor Dodig, the chief executive officer of CIBC, to the post. Dodig takes over from another male bank executive — Bill Downe — who is retiring from his post as CEO of the Bank of Montreal and has stepped down from his role at Catalyst. Downe was chair of Catalyst's advisory board for four years.

'Not a women's issue'

Tanya van Biesen, the executive director of Catalyst Canada, said Friday that her objective since she joined the organization has been to change the conversation on how women advance in the workplace.

"There is years and years and years of history of amazing work done by incredibly influential, powerful women on this topic," she told CBC News. "But at the same time, when women talk to women about this issue, I think we've shown that we haven't moved the dial nearly as quickly as we would like to," she said.

"I would say this every day of the week: this is a societal issue, it's not a women's issue," she told CBC News's Renee Filippone. "Women talking to women is not solving the problem. As a societal issue, we need everybody participating not only in the discussion but in the actions forward."

Van Biesen pointed out that Dodig has shown leadership on the issue of advancing women in the workplace, and has also been on Catalyst's board for several years.

'Powerful opportunity'

"It's disappointing," said Jenifer Bartman, a business adviser and former executive in the venture capital industry.

Dodig's qualifications for the role are not the issue, she said.

"It's more the opportunity that was missed, to be able to put one of any number of women who are accomplished in their own right in a role like this, and just see the optics and the message that that sends," she said. "That's a powerful opportunity."

Of the 19 members of Catalyst Canada's advisory board, seven are women.

Cassandra Steer, the executive director of Women in International Security Canada, which supports the advancement of women in the fields of international law and security, and foreign policy, was disappointed when she heard a man had been appointed chair at Catalyst again. 

"It's certainly necessary to have engagement with men, with all genders, to effect change and to support women's roles in the workplace," Steer said.

"But to put a man in this position once again sends the signal that, well, we weren't able to find a woman who is equally qualified to head up an organization that's all about supporting women in the workplace. So I think it's a little bit ironic and kind of disappointing," she said.

Sherry Cooper, chief economist at Dominion Lending Centres, thinks Dodig is an excellent replacement for Downe.

"I know just how committed he is to the advancement of diversity, not just women but diversity in general," she said.

At the same time, Cooper noted that Catalyst seems to favour bank CEOs for the advisory board chair role because the banks are big employers and they have a "really significant platform" to help women advance in the workplace.

"Find me a Canadian bank CEO who is a woman," Cooper said, while also noting there are few female chief executives of major Canadian corporations.

With files from Meegan Read