As It Happens

Catalyst women's organization defends choosing a man to head advisory board, again

For the second time in a row, Catalyst Canada, a non-profit dedicated to advancing women in the workplace, has chosen a man to lead its advisory board.
Victor Dodig, President and CEO of CIBC, has been appointed to chair the advisory board of Catalyst Canada, a non-profit dedicated to advancing women in the workplace. He is the second man in a row to hold the position. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Read Story Transcript

For the second time in a row, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to the advancement of women in the workplace has chosen a man to head its advisory board

Catalyst Canada announced Thursday that Victor Dodig, chief executive at CIBC, has taken over as chair from Bill Downe, CEO of the Bank of Montreal. 

The announcement drew exasperation and condemnation on social media from women and men alike. 

Catalyst Canada is the Canadian wing of the global organization which describes itself as "the leading nonprofit organization with a mission to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion." 

The group's executive director Tanya van Biesen spoke to As It Happens guest host Jim Brown about the controversial choice. Here is part of their conversation. 

Your organization just named a man to lead an advisory board on increasing women's leadership in the business world. Can you see why people are upset about this decision?

On the surface I can, but just to clarify ... Catalyst's mission is to advance women in the workplace. Ninety-five per cent of corporations in North America are led by men, and that's a stat that we want to change as much or more than anybody.

This is not a women's discussion.- Tanya van Biesen, executive director of Catalyst Canada 

But the reality is in order to change that, we need to move this discussion from being women's issue to what it really is, which is a societal issue. So in order to change those stats, we need to involve everybody in society, which includes men.

But you say your mandate is to push for advancement of women in the workplace. Isn't it also, though, to promote gender equity in the boardroom and the executive offices?

No question. 

So can you at least see a problem with the optics of this?

I don't see this as an optics question at all. I have said this many times and I stand by this — this is not a women's discussion. It's very important that we all engage on why it's important to have women in leadership roles. And I need men to be part of that discussion.

Victor is an outstanding choice for chair, because as you may know he's also the founding chair of the 30% Club in Canada, so he has been very vocal and intentional on the topic of advancing women, not only within CIBC but very broadly across the country.

Tanya van Biesen is the executive director of Catalyst Canada. (supplied)

The same words could come from the mouth of the executive director of any of the corporations with male-dominated boards. This is exactly what they say to justify the composition of their boards. So shouldn't you be saying something different?

So should women's advocacy organizations only have women in them? Because, to me, that seems like the only other option when people talk about this, and I don't see that as an option at all.

We are never going to crack the code and change the game here unless we have everybody involved. Victor has been very vocal about the importance of women in leadership because he sees it as a way to empower his organizations and other Canadian organizations. That, to me, is a critical message in all of this.

The fact, though, that your previous chair was a man. Did that make it more difficult to sign off on this?

No, it didn't make it more difficult. Did we think about it? Sure, we thought about it. But again, for us — I feel this in my bones — that in order to effect change, we've got to move this out of a women's only issue. 

This transcript has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to the full interview with Tanya van Biesen at the top of this web post.