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Building workplaces that work for women: How to make your organization more inclusive



Tanya van Biesen left her 21-year career in the corporate world of executive search to take on a leading role with a global non-profit supporting one of her passions: advancing inclusive workplaces.


By Kristen Sears



For Tanya van Biesen, it was kinda, sorta déjà vu. Two summers ago, she left her two-decade career as a recruiter to become Executive Director of Catalyst Canada, the Canadian arm of the global nonprofit dedicated to building workplaces that work for women. But even before her first day at Catalyst, the job felt familiar. And for good reason.

A decade earlier, Tanya, who graduated from the Queen’s Commerce program at Smith School of Business, was a partner in the executive search firm Spencer Stuart. There, she’d been put in charge of finding an executive director for Catalyst Canada. Tanya was impressed with Catalyst but never figured she’d one day hold the job she was recruiting for.

But in 2016, fate intervened. The executive director position came open again, and Tanya seemed like the perfect fit for it. At Spencer Stuart, she led the company’s diversity practice and was keenly aware that there was a vast pool of talented women out there to fill leadership roles in corporate Canada. She was eager to move the needle and make a difference.

One can see how the executive director opening at Catalyst piqued Tanya’s interest. Catalyst’s core mission is to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion. Women have come a long way since Catalyst’s inception in 1962 — today, the organization operates around the world and is supported by more than 800 companies — but in the upper echelons of business, it’s still a man’s world.

We recently caught up with Tanya and asked what organizations can do to move towards a more inclusive workplace. This is what she had to say:


    • Incentivize inclusive leadership: reward inclusive behaviours and have a zero-tolerance policy for exclusionary ones.
    • Shine a light on visible minority women: develop specific goals for advancing women of colour and make leaders accountable for achieving them.
    • Engage men as champions: since men run about 95 per cent of the most powerful companies, things will only change if we engage powerful male sponsors.
    • Unlock “hot jobs” to help accelerate women’s careers: make sure women have access to P&L positions and the high visibility, mission-critical roles and international experiences that are critical to advance.
    • Shake up your board: review recruiting policies and go outside your regular network of contacts to find diverse candidates so your board truly reflects the consumers and communities it serves.
    • Unmask unconscious bias: it exists everywhere. Tackle it head-on and organization-wide with mandatory training.
    • Get real about gender, race and ethnicity: communicating openly and authentically across differences is critical to creating a powerful culture of inclusion.
    • Close the wage gap. Immediately: women work 100 per cent. On average, they make about 82 per cent what men earn. Do an audit to see if you have a wage gap. Then implement policies and processes to close it and keep it closed.
    • Prioritize productivity over physical presence: Flexible work environments are good for people and organizations, plus they can help attract top talent and reduce turnover.


Last November, Catalyst Canada launched the Catalyst Accord 2022, which calls on Canadian businesses to pledge to have 30 per cent of executive and board positions, on average, staffed by women by 2022. For its part, Catalyst is amplifying signatories’ chances of success by helping them address and execute actions like those noted above.

While Tanya and the rest of the team at Catalyst have their work cut out for them, they are energized by the momentum. In the last three months alone, they have engaged 38 companies in the signing of the Catalyst Accord, they have convened the country’s leading CEOs and Board Directors to discuss the importance of gender-balanced leadership, and they have joined forces with six national governance and gender advocacy organizations in the development of the Canadian Gender & Good Governance Alliance.

In recognition of her work at Catalyst, Tanya was profiled in Canada 150 Women in December, 2017. What’s next? “My biggest priority” Tanya says “is to change the conversation around gender equality in Canada from ‘why?’ to ‘how?’ Rather than why should we do it, how do we get there?”


This spring, Smith’s Centre for Social Impact will launch a series of new Professional Leadership Programs that seek to address the diversity gap in senior leadership roles. The Diversity and Inclusion Professional Series will include programs focused on LGBTQ+ leadership, Indigenous leadership, women in leadership, and programs for newcomer Canadians. To learn more, visit:


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