Embracing Greater Diversity as Next ‘Catalyst’ for Change

In conversation with Alex Johnston, Executive Director, Catalyst Canada

Back in October 2014, COACH’s Women Leaders in Health Informatics Toronto Forum had the opportunity to listen to Alex Johnston, Executive Director for Catalyst Canada, highlight the need for greater female representation at board executive tables across Canada. This article highlights some of the main themes covered by the Catalyst Accord, a call to action for Canada’s largest companies to increase the representation of women on their boards, as well as COACH’s support for women in the industry. 

With COACH celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, it is an apt time to look back and reflect on the successes and changes that this organization has brought to the health informatics industry. To put it in context, 40 years ago I was sitting on my parents’ living room floor in Montreal watching Sonny & Cher belt out “I Got You Babe” and, along with ABBA, Blondie (and my own awesome working mom), I had some interesting 70s role models. Little did I know that exciting times had started at COACH, nor that I would be collaborating with leading organizations like COACH & Catalyst to help support women leaders in the industry today. At COACH’s first Annual General Meeting in 1976, there were only 13 women members and one female Board member. Over the last 40 years, COACH has built up female representation on the Board, now at a healthy 25%.

Today, our growing industry of 40,000 HI professionals is showing a greater diversity at all levels. But how do we compare to other industries and how do we better support diversity and female leadership? I turn to Alex for some perspective.

Elizabeth: How is Canada doing generally in terms of supporting women leaders and what does the Catalyst Accord aim to do?

Alex: “Well, Canada is in the middle of the pack on the global stage in terms of our stats. Women comprised 21% of directors in companies in the S&P/TSX 60 index in 2014, and over 40% of our FP (Financial Post) 500 boards still have no female representation.

“It’s great to see that women make up 25% of the COACH Board today – you need a critical mass to really start to see culture change and the benefits that come from diverse points of view. The Catalyst Accord has challenged Canadian companies to help lift the average representation of women on FP500 boards to 25% by 2017 by setting their own board goals and we’ll help them meet their goal.

“There are lots of systemic reasons why the numbers of women rising through the ranks – on to executive committees and boards – have been slow to increase over the last decade. Catalyst research on high-potential women globally gets at this: Canadian women in our study made, on average, $8,167 less than men in similar jobs, they were far likelier than men to begin their careers in entry-level positions and they received fewer of the “hot jobs” – career advancing, mission critical assignments – that help gain the kind of experience and exposure to senior executives that lead to promotion opportunities in the organization. This might help to explain why the Canadian female MBA graduates we studied are more likely than their global peers to build careers in the government, nonprofit and education sectors and by-pass the corporate world. This is a loss for businesses that are missing out on women’s talent.”

Elizabeth: What other organizations or industries are focused on this issue to benefit Canada?

Alex: “There are a lot of people rowing in the same direction when it comes to leveraging all of our talent and making sure men and women have the same opportunities to contribute and advance. Catalyst is working closely with many individual leaders and organizations. It has been helpful to have both levels of government – federal and provincial – engaged on the issue of women’s advancement. The Ontario Securities Commission has brought in ‘comply or explain’ requirements (adopted by nine other jurisdictions) – where TSX-listed companies must have written policies and targets to increase female representation on boards or explain in their annual public filings why they don’t. The federal government has set an aspirational objective of 30% of women on corporate boards by 2019.”

Elizabeth: What advice would you give to COACH members to create a more inclusive workplace?

Alex: “Here is a list I have shared with other industries, which may be interesting to COACH and your members.

  • Hold yourself and your team accountable. Set goals around diversity and inclusion – and link meeting them to performance reviews.
  • Seek out growth opportunities when it comes to identifying and developing new talent. Do you have a ‘type’ when it comes to hiring, mentoring and promoting? It’s important to identify your own blind spots and address them.
  • Ask new questions. The evidence is in: Having more women in leadership is good for business. Instead of asking, ‘What can women do to get ahead?’ and ‘Why aren’t more qualified women applying?’ ask, ‘What is my company doing to make that possible?’ and ‘Where are we looking for candidates?’
  • Don’t wait. Good leaders take deliberate steps to make positive change.
  • Attract mission-driven women and socially conscious millennials by highlighting your company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility.
  • Find a role model—and be one. Women need more role models in senior leadership; our research tells us you can’t be what you can’t see.
  • Raise good kids. Whether you’re a parent, aunt, uncle or friend, everyone has a role to play in raising children with strong values who model inclusive behaviour.”

Elizabeth: Thanks Alex! And thanks COACH!

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