Catalyst for Change

Her roots in Nova Scotia’s harsh Cape Breton Island have shaped Deborah Gillis into the ideal leader for one of the world’s chief nonprofits focused on equality for women in the workplace
by Jackie Krentzman

‘‘Sorry, do you hear the lawn mower in the background?”

Deborah Gillis, the president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Catalyst, is sitting in her summer home on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, conducting a phone interview. For her, this is no big deal. In fact, if she didn’t work from home sometimes, that might even be considered suspect, as Catalyst, the leading national organization for research on woman’s leadership and equity, is committed to “walking the walk.” Given Catalyst’s long-standing support of workplace flexibility, it logically follows that the CEO would set an example by, well, spending a week or so each summer working in flip-flops and shorts.

“To put it bluntly, we work really hard to practice what we preach,” she says. “And, it’s really important for Catalyst to set an example for corporations and organizations across the United States and Canada, demonstrating that workplace flexibility not only isn’t detrimental to an organization’s success, but is integral, as this sort of flexibility brings a benefit not only to employees but to the organization, in terms of engagement, 
effectiveness, and productivity.”

Gillis took the helm of Catalyst, which also has operations in Japan, Australia, India, and Europe, in 2014, as just its fourth leader in its 54-year history. At the time, it was in the process of shifting its focus from an organization that concentrated largely on research to one that also offered solution-based programming, grounded in that research, directly to other organizations and companies. The transformation has accelerated under Gillis.

In part generated by its research, Catalyst has expanded its reach to be responsive to the evolution in thinking about gender equality in the workplace and society.
Gillis divides the evolving landscape into three phases.

The first phase of the fight for equality for women was simply for fundamental rights, such as voting. Then the emphasis shifted to numbers—equity for women in the workplace and on the paycheck. During this phase (in many instances still ongoing), corporations have focused on increasing representation—
oftentimes relying on the data from Catalyst that demonstrated the woeful lack of women leaders in the upper echelons of Corporate America. Gillis calls this the “why” phase: Why do we need to pay attention? Why is gender equity in the workplace important, and what is the business case for it?

In the last few years, Catalyst has moved into a third phase. 
Diversity and inclusion leaders have recognized that increasing the representation of women in the workforce alone is insufficient. There are still significant barriers to advancement. Therefore, if workplace diversity is not married to a true commitment to inclusion, it rings hollow and, more importantly, leads to disillusionment and can ultimately stifle a company’s bottom line.

Catalyst has been at the forefront of this shift from diversity to inclusion—what Gillis calls the “how” agenda (see sidebar on page 39). Now that Catalyst and other organizations have amply documented the barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace, Catalyst is putting its resources into driving change. Under Gillis’s stewardship, it has increasingly provided more consulting, training programs, and other direct services, along with organizing conferences and events, all in the name of guiding companies along the path to true inclusion.

“In this third phase of the agenda, companies are saying, okay, I have bought in, and we are committed to becoming more inclusive. But show me how,” Gillis says. “This has led Catalyst to think more about and develop programmatic solutions that are grounded in our research and what we’ve learned over the years. We believe that we can play a pivotal role in providing tested solutions that actually work to drive change.”

Accordingly, Catalyst has conducted extensive research and developed programs around inclusive leadership. Its research findings have demonstrated the key qualities and characteristics of inclusive leaders and, in turn, how to best train qualified, aspiring woman leaders to advance. Just as importantly, it has developed programs to train organizations how to identify and nurture those candidates. When successful, the result is a win-win for the individuals and the company.

Gillis is the perfect leader for Catalyst today, as her life and work embody all three phases.

She was born in Toronto and raised in rural Nova Scotia, where her family goes back generations. Her father held a series of blue-collar jobs, including truck driver, mine worker, and construction worker. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom when Gillis was young, then became a housekeeper in town.

Gillis was raised with strong female role models, including her great-grandmother, and was imbued with the value of giving back to one’s family and community. Education was emphasized, but nobody in her family or town encouraged Gillis to aspire high and dream big.

“I would say I was really supported to study hard, get good grades, get an education,” she says. “The message was certainly instilled that education was the path forward and certainly the way for my circumstances and life to be less challenging than what my parents experienced. But at the same time, I think when you grow up in challenging circumstances like I did, with a blue-collar background, there really wasn’t emphasis on career.”

It was Gillis’s exposure to gender issues in the 12th grade that changed her life course. Recently, she says, she was rifling through a box of high school mementos and found a note from her senior year civics debate, which resolved that “women are the same as men.” (Presumably, Gillis debated on the side of “yes!”)

That sparked an interest that has never waned. While still in high school, Gillis became involved in advocating for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which included the Canadian equivalent of the Equal Rights Amendment. It was ratified in 1982. The United States is still waiting.

“Being involved in that fight was a very important moment for me in recognizing that there was a role for women to step forward, and to advocate,” Gillis says. “I was so inspired to realize that there was opportunity for women to be in positions of leadership in government—and to see that community-based advocacy could play a role in making change.”

After high school, Gillis earned a BA in political science at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and a MA in political science from York University in Toronto. She held a series of government policy roles for the province of Ontario, including working to extend benefits to same-sex partners. She returned to Nova Scotia to run for a seat in its House of Assembly, the equivalent of a state legislature.

Although she lost in her bid for public office, that experience made a deep impression. “Growing up in Nova Scotia, it was a fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” she says. “Watching Hillary Clinton being nominated as the Democratic candidate for president got me reflecting. One of my strongest memories of that period in my life is how being a candidate had such an impact on young girls. I have so many stories of young girls telling me how I inspired them. They saw in my candidacy what was possible for them in life.”

Gillis next moved back into government service before becoming a consultant in private industry, focusing on organizational development. It was then that she received a diagnosis of breast cancer.

“That was a pivotal moment for me,” she says. “It was one of those experiences where you step back and assess your life and what you’ve accomplished—and how you want to spend your time. Being a breast cancer survivor led me to decide I wanted to go back to doing work that was deeply meaningful to me.”

In 2006, she joined Catalyst to lead Catalyst Canada. Since then, she has served as vice president, North America; senior vice president, membership and global operations (leading Catalyst’s global growth strategy and expansion into India and Australia); and president and chief operating officer.

By joining Catalyst, Gillis once again was doing meaningful work that connected to her long-standing interest in furthering the position of women in society, politics, and the workplace.

Gillis’s unconventional path from rural Canada to the top of one of the leading nonprofits in the United States has influenced how she, and Catalyst, approach diversity and inclusion. In short, there are many possible paths to success. She is a case in point. In high school, even college, given her modest background, Gillis would not have been identified as a future leader. She wants to be sure that this message reaches far and wide.

“I was not the usual suspect to be the CEO of one of the leading and most respected nonprofits in the world,” she says. 
“I believe so much in the notion of potential and people, and the importance of looking in different places for that potential. We shouldn’t make assumptions about people based on their circumstance, whether that’s class or race or gender. I’ve learned that if people are given the right kinds of support, they can achieve great things. The work that Catalyst does and the role we can play resonate so much with my own life story and experiences.”

Anna Stuart, the managing partner of an executive recruitment and HR firm who met Gillis 20 years ago when they both worked in the Nova Scotia public sector, says Gillis’s personal background is key to her success.

“The fact that Deb comes from humble beginnings has shaped everything she does and how she thinks about everything,” says Stuart. “At her core, she knows that every human has value and deserves respect and opportunity. That has framed her public service and career to this day.”

For decades, Catalyst has been primarily a research organization, providing data on women’s equality utilized by more than 800 organizations and companies to establish leadership training programs, launch campaigns, and change company culture. In recent years, the organization has begun to focus on leveraging its data and knowledge to provide solution-focused programming. It has ramped up its consultation and training work with companies, launched proprietary programs, and sponsored more seminars and conferences.

For example, Catalyst is currently on the verge of launching an initiative focused on women of color. The program has not yet gone public, but Gillis says it will dovetail with the organization’s long-standing emphasis on research and programming concentrated on this demographic.

For example, Catalyst is in the process of conducting a longitudinal study on gender, race, and ethnicity. And several years ago Catalyst implemented an initiative to increase the representation of women on boards (today, women only hold 20 percent of S&P 500 board seats), with a specific callout for women of color. As a result, its first mentoring program for training aspiring women board members included 50 percent women of color.

Another new initiative, MARC (Men Advocating Real Change), aims to engage men to be change agents for workplace diversity. The work is grounded in Catalyst research demonstrating that once men are champions of equality in the workplace for women, the needle moves more significantly. MARC offers programs that will help men both to see their unconscious bias and to understand their privilege while shaping strategies for action and change in the workplace.

“The development of MARC is grounded directly in our research,” says Gillis. “The work started with fundamental research that helped us identify, for example, which conditions really encourage and support men to be champions of gender equality in the workplace. Then, by understanding those issues that our research revealed, we were able to take the next step in creating programs that will help equip men to see their unconscious bias and most importantly to shape strategies for action and change in the workplace.”
Catalyst also recently launched CatalystX, its MOOC (massive open online courses), in collaboration with EdX. It offers a series of online courses in leadership development.
Despite these new programs, and others, Gillis would like to see Catalyst do even more to help increase the representation of women at leadership levels.

“I feel we’re at a very important moment right now,” she says. “I say that in part because of the fact there is so much conversation and attention in the workplace and society on the issue of gender equality and because I see the conversation finally shifting from ‘why’ to ‘how.’ No longer do I find myself in rooms having to continually be answering the ‘why’ question. People now get the value of gender equality. Yet, the numbers are not moving as quickly as we would like, and issues and challenges remain, in particular for women of color.”

She thinks that the pace of change is slow because companies are still overly focused on diversity and not enough on inclusion. Company culture and employees at all levels of organizations are not fully equipped to understand how to act inclusively so that everyone within the organization feels a sense of ownership and accountability.
Gillis acknowledges that fully embracing inclusion is more difficult than merely launching diversity programs and initiatives. Implementing true inclusion requires buy-in and oftentimes cultural change, and the shifting of individual perspectives and behaviors that are frequently deeply rooted.

“Look at your organization, she says. “Look around the decision-making table. You may very well see diversity in that room. But that doesn’t mean the decisions reflect inclusion. Inclusion means intentional choices and actions that individuals take on an everyday basis that reflect who you are, what you pay attention to, whom you call out, whom you spend time with, and whom you act as an advocate or champion for. This requires an intentional choice, just like at one point companies made an intentional choice that shaped policies for recruitment and retention and promotion of [diverse] staff.”

Ideally, the leader of any organization would feel a personal resonance with the work the organization does. This connection helps ensure consistency of mission, a passion that trickles down throughout the organization, and a deeper understanding of Catalyst’s vision and goals.

Gillis feels this mission connect in her bones, says Stuart. That affinity stems from her family’s challenging financial circumstances growing up, and also from those in her community, specifically Nova Scotia’s rural, breathtaking yet bleak, Cape Breton Island. “She comes not only from a family that has struggled, but also from a region that has nothing,” says Stuart. “It is not rich in terms of natural assets that can create prosperous lives for its residents. As a result, people there develop a profound self-sufficiency. On Cape Breton Island, despite the disadvantages, we endure and find ways to create successful lives.

“Deb comes a place where people have learned how to overcome barriers and where people spent a lifetime helping one another navigate those barriers. She has brought that mentality to Catalyst, whose primary purpose is to help women overcome barriers. I couldn’t think of anyone who would be a better fit to run such an organization than Deborah Gillis.” DW

Join the Diversity Woman Community

Join a network of career-oriented women and use the member directory to see all the members in your community and find world class mentors. Access exclusive leadership development packages to help you achieve your career goals. Work With Coaches. Take Career Development Courses, and much more.