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Catalyst’s new executive director sees wealth of ‘untapped’ talent in Canada

Executive search specialist Tanya van Biesen has been named executive director of Catalyst Canada.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

The new head of women's advocacy group Catalyst Canada says two decades of work searching for executives to fill senior roles in Canada has convinced her there is no shortage of talented women for top jobs, and has left her impatient with holdouts who continue to argue they can't find qualified candidates.

Executive search specialist Tanya van Biesen has been named executive director of Catalyst Canada, and said she knows plenty of talented women to fill senior roles without requiring companies to compromise quality.

"I worked with clients every day on the difficulty of attracting talent, and I think there is such an untapped opportunity in this country and other countries around using the full weight of the work force," Ms. van Biesen said in an interview.

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"If we as a society could just figure out how to better define the contributions people could make at the board level of the executive level, I think we could tap into such a large talent base."

Ms. van Biesen has worked at search firm Spencer Stuart since 2005, most recently co-leading the financial services practice at the firm, focusing on searches for directors, CEOs and general management-level executives.

She also led the search firm's Canadian diversity practice, helping companies hire chief diversity officers or find diverse slates of candidates for other roles.

Ms. van Biesen will begin her new role at Catalyst next week, replacing former executive director Alex Johnston, who left in February to become vice-president of strategy and public affairs at the CBC. Catalyst advocates for women in senior roles, sponsors research and works directly with individual companies developing diversity strategies.

Ms. van Biesen said she has been a strong supporter of new "comply or explain" rules in Canada, requiring companies to report annually on whether they have diversity policies or targets for women. But she said she has seen many companies use "easy outs" to explain why they have no policies while continuing to have no women in senior roles.

"This is not a zero-sum game – this is not a woman gets a job so man doesn't," she said. "This is about building on the prosperity of this country… It's about growing the pie, it's not about me getting a piece and you not getting a piece. I'd be the wrong person for this job if I didn't believe there is a pie to grow here."

She argues the discussion about advancing women has to shift from whether or why companies need more women in senior roles toward practical advice on how they can find and advance them.

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"I think the question is not so much 'why' any more but how – how do we break down the barriers and how do we access the talent pool?" she said.

Catalyst CEO Deborah Gillis, who heads the New York-based organization, said Ms. van Biesen's experience at the most senior levels of Corporate Canada means she "understands the competitive talent environment and the challenges facing women today."

"Her ability to work with others to inspire change will be a tremendous asset to the organization and our supporters as we continue to expand in Canada," Ms. Gillis said in a statement.

Ms. van Biesen began her career at Procter & Gamble, working in Toronto and Calgary in sales roles, and later worked at search firm TMP Worldwide Inc. and its predecessors in Canada before joining Spencer Stuart. She holds an MBA from the University of Toronto and a bachelor of commerce degree from Queen's University.

She is currently the Toronto chapter representative of the WomenCorporateDirectors Foundation, a global membership organization for female board directors.

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About the Author
Real Estate Reporter

Janet McFarland is the real estate reporter for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, with a focus on residential real estate trends. She joined Report on Business in 1995, and has specialized in reporting on corporate governance, executive compensation, pension policy, business law, securities regulation and enforcement of white-collar crime. More


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