Most Powerful People

Canada’s Most Powerful Business People 2016: #10 — Deborah Gillis

Pushes corporations to advance women

Deborah Gillis, President & CEO, Catalyst Inc.
(Roberto Caruso)

#10: Deborah Gillis

President & CEO, Catalyst Inc.

Why she matters: Pushes corporations to advance women

If your company is taking a serious look at the gender diversity of its senior leadership, you can thank Deborah Gillis. As head of New York–based Catalyst, a global research and advisory organization, she wants to boost the number of female executives in C-suites and on corporate boards. And she’s got an impressive roster of influencers to help her do it.

Catalysts’s board of directors includes tech pioneer Michael Dell, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi—a sign that heavy hitters back gender diversity, even if the numbers haven’t yet caught up. In Canada and the U.S., the number of women on boards of publicly traded companies sits at about 20%. But in the U.K., Catalyst’s most recent survey shows an increase from 12.5% to 23% since 2011.

“Everywhere I go around the world, people are talking about this issue,” says Gillis, Catalyst’s first Canadian president. “There’s a new generation of men and women who are interested in seeing change.”

Gillis has helped spark that change by expanding Catalyst’s global reach. Before she took over as CEO last year, she developed an international expansion strategy and helped set up headquarters in India and Australia. In Canada, where she served as executive director from 2006 to 2011, she launched the Catalyst Accord, which asks companies to commit to increasing female representation on their boards to 25% by 2017. Signees include most of the big banks, law firms such as Borden Ladner Gervais and, from the male-dominated mining sector, Goldcorp.

Growing up in Cape Breton, N.S., Gillis became an outspoken defender of women’s rights early on in life. She still has the notes from a Grade 12 civics debate—“Be It Resolved that Women Earn the Same as Men”—and vividly recalls feminists pushing for gender equality to be included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Her own experience offers lessons for employers, she suggests, pointing out that she has benefited from the help of several key men and women who served as mentors. It was one of those people who convinced her to apply for the job of executive director of Catalyst Canada about a decade ago. “I didn’t think I was qualified,” Gillis says, “and if I’d been left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have applied.”

Despite Catalyst’s connections in the corporate world, many companies are just waking up to the issue: Only 14% of publicly listed Canadian firms have a formal plan for promoting women to their boards. But Gillis believes change will come. “What’s shifting is there’s such a degree of attention and visibility around this topic,” she says. “Companies will suffer reputationally if they fail to make progress.”

More of Canada’s Most Powerful Business People:

▲ #9 Alain Bouchard
▼ #11 Tobias Lütke