Tanya van Biesen, Executive Director of Catalyst, on the crucial ingredients for women in leadership

From online to conferences to coffeeshops, the conversation about women in leadership roles just keeps on gaining momentum. (Yes!) Here, Wengage talks with Tanya van Biesen, executive director of the Canadian branch of Catalyst [www.catalyst.org]. Catalyst is a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with pioneering research, practical tools, and proven solutions to accelerate and advance women into leadership.

Wengage: What inspires you to do great work?

Tanya van Biesen: I am inspired by all the incredible women that I know and continue to meet in every part of my role here. There’s so much talent out there that’s still undervalued and underutilized and not able to contribute fully because of the societal and structural barriers all around us.

W: What are some of the challenges women are facing when it comes to leadership roles?


TVB: Firstly, the double-bind effect is alive and well: women are either too hard or too soft but never quite right. Secondly, there is a distinct lack of female representation in senior leadership, which is a big issue because “you need to see it to be it.” We are still missing out on a critical mass of role models that will enable women in leadership just to be normalized. Thirdly, women are mentored to death. What they’re missing out on is sponsorship.

W: Can you tell us more about sponsorship?

TVB: A mentor is someone who will guide you and help you resolve things like professional roadblocks. A sponsor is someone in a leadership role who will spend professional capital on advancing your career. A sponsor is ambitious for you and will stick their neck out for you at those critical career junctures—as your advocate for development or advancement opportunities, and in those situations where you stumble and fall and someone is questioning your capabilities. Men have been the beneficiaries of sponsorship for years. This is not some nasty conspiracy, but rather that men have naturally benefited from sponsorship because 95% of the world’s companies are run by men. And research tells us convincingly we tend to favour those who look and sound like us.

W: What can companies do to promote sponsorship in leadership?

TVB: They can implement formalized sponsorship programs or they can build this idea into their leadership strategy. They can train people about what that looks like, why that’s important and why it’s part of being a strong leader. They can prioritize the importance of representation, and place targets around balanced gender representation at all levels of the organization. They can look at why there is a lack of gender balance in the organization and where the drop off points are: we’re hiring x number of women, why are they dropping out, at what point are they leaving, what do we need to do as an intervention to address those things?

W: What’s ahead for women and leadership?


TVB: I’m extremely optimistic. I think we have an unbelievable amount of talent, it just needs to be encouraged to move up the leadership ranks.


Tanya van Biesen, Toronto, Executive director, Canada, Catalyst