Supporting gender equity means “changing our workplaces […] our government, and our culture,” said opening keynote Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Moms First and founder of Girls Who Code. This theme—that structural and systemic change are necessary to advance gender equity at work—permeated the entire 2023 Catalyst Awards Conference & Dinner on March 30.
Throughout the day and evening, speakers emphasized that individual women must not be given the responsibility to change. Rather, companies must transform their policies and practices—and be held accountable if they fail to do so.
The 36th annual event gathered hundreds of Catalyst Supporters; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) experts; and top corporate leaders in person in New York City and online in real time around the world.
Together, we celebrated the 2023 Catalyst Award-winning initiatives, which advance women and people from other marginalized groups in the workplace:
The 2023 Catalyst Awards theme, Accelerating Equity on All Fronts—So Women Thrive, focused on the need to advance gender equity from the frontline to the C-suite. In her opening statements, Catalyst President & CEO Lorraine Hariton shared a preview of Catalyst’s new Frontline Employees Initiative, centering the experiences of women working in the hospitality, manufacturing, and retail sectors in jobs that require them to physically show up at designated times. “It is urgent that we ensure all women can succeed in the workplace, including those working in frontline roles,” Hariton told the packed room.
Here are nine calls to action from the event.
1. Focus on Moms
In an opening keynote conversation with Shim Sameer, Head of Preferred Business and Lending at Bank of America, Reshma Saujani urged leaders to build workplaces with moms first in mind.
“We should be designing [workplaces] around single moms who don’t have [… a] support structure,” she said. “If it works for a single mom, it will work for everyone.”
Saujani shared her personal struggles raising two children at home during the pandemic while trying to keep her nonprofit organization, Girls Who Code, afloat. Girls Who Code teaches young girls coding skills to help them build future careers in STEM. Yet, during the pandemic, many of her students struggled to keep up with school because they were forced to take care of siblings while their mothers were at work.
“I realized that I can’t help these girls unless I help their mothers,” Saujani said, explaining the impetus for founding her new organization, Moms First. “We [need] paid leave […] affordable childcare […] pay equity […] and finally we really need flexibility […] We spend so much time trying to fix women rather than fixing the structure.”
Sameer added that supporting moms is critical to a healthy future workforce. “It’s not just about working mothers today, it’s about who will become working mothers tomorrow. And if we don’t start the support system today, there’s going to be women who will have to make a choice between becoming a mother or [not] showing up to work.”
2. Tie DEI Progress to Performance
Representatives from both Catalyst Award-winning initiatives discussed how accountability mechanisms were critical to their success. Both organizations tie progress on DEI goals to annual performance evaluations.
Mo Tooker, Head of Enterprise Sales & Distribution, Global Specialty, and Middle & Large Commercial at The Hartford said: “If you’re going to be successful here at the Hartford, [DEI] is a part of our culture and you’re going to have to contribute in some way. This is our expectation.”
At UPMC, James E. Taylor, Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Talent Management Officer, echoed that philosophy. “Diversity and inclusion is who we are; it’s key to our business and advancing our mission, so it’s not optional.”
3. Foster Equity to Foster Trust
In a fireside chat with Lorraine Hariton, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla shared his family’s story of resiliency and how lessons he learned growing up helped shape his leadership style today.
“My mom […] she made me who I am […] She survived the Holocaust [… she told me] ‘There is nothing impossible in life. So go after it’ […] That is what is a very big driver for me,” Bourla said.
This same sentiment—plus a commitment to empathy and equity—helped drive the innovation necessary to develop the Covid-19 vaccine in record time.
Bourla explained, “A company like Pfizer—it’s extremely important for [people] to trust the company. Companies that […] do not behave in a way that is [equitable] to everyone, they are not the companies that will be trusted.”
4. Use Transparency to Drive Change
In a breakout session, Anna-Maria LeMaistre, Supervisor of DEI at Enbridge Inc., shared details of her company’s Diversity Dashboard initiative, in which Enbridge organizes data on representation across the company, collected voluntarily and anonymously from staff, and publishes the information internally. This high level of transparency leads to both awareness and change.
“When a leader looks at this they go, ‘How come I have so few women in leadership?’” LeMaistre shared as an example. “’I didn’t know that I had 40% of women in my group but only 10% women in leadership.’” LeMaistre added, “It’s amazing what can happen when people are given information with which they can make decisions. We don’t punish leaders when they have DEI gaps, we help them. We work with them to build a plan.”
5. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Allies
Systemic change is critical but individual allies also have key roles to play in building more equitable workplaces.
In a breakout session for online attendees only, leaders from Conference Presenting Sponsor Target offered stories of allies who supported them on their career journey. Amanda Vela Kraemer, Senior Vice President, Stores, shared how one manager, Joe, pushed her to grow her career aspirations. Although she aimed to move just one level higher from where she was, “Joe, early in my career said […] you have to think bigger, you have to dream bigger, you have to believe in bigger. […] At times it takes other people to help see in you things that you haven’t seen yet.”
During her Dinner remarks, Catalyst Advisory Board Chair Karen S. Carter, President of Packaging & Specialty Plastics at Dow, also emphasized the role of men as allies for gender equity. “An invaluable tool for culture change has been Catalyst’s MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) program,” she said. “MARC has equipped hundreds of Dow men and women around the world to be champions and allies for gender equity. And collectively, they are making our workplace work for women, and work for everyone.”
6. Ensure Accountability to DEI and Fair Organizational Practices
New Catalyst research launched at the event found that two organizational practices—accountability and fairness—are key to employee success.
Yet, just over half of employees think their organizations are accountable and only one-third think they are fair. This data is not a good sign for companies looking to retain and attract top talent.
In a panel discussion, leaders at Nationwide shared that the company combined its DEI and talent acquisition departments to better build a more diverse and equitable talent pipeline. They also conduct pay equity audits every year to identify and address anomalies.
“The status quo is changing. Why are we doing things the same when everything has changed?” asked Vinita Clements, Nationwide’s Chief Human Resources Officer.
7. Address Racism Head-On
Three years after companies made sweeping pledges to address racial inequity, there remains significant work to do. Recent Catalyst research revealed that more than half of employees from marginalized racial and ethnic groups have experienced racism in their current workplace.
In a panel discussion, Catalyst experts urged leaders to hold themselves and their organizations accountable for building more inclusive workplaces.
Director of Corporate Engagement Shea Bible shared a personal experience in which a manager once told her, “[Don’t] bring ‘Shea’ to the meeting”—making her feel as if she didn’t belong. Bible added that allyship and curiosity are critical to building trust and psychological safety in workplaces where employees will want to stay and contribute.
8. Advance Health, Wealth, and Gender Equity Together
In the closing keynote conversation, leaders from Edward Jones and Deloitte spoke with Rikia Birindelli-Fayne, Interim Executive Director, EMEA, Catalyst, about the need to address health, wealth, and gender inequities worldwide.
“There is a direct link between gender equity and health equity [… women] make 80% of healthcare decisions.” said Dr. Kulleni Gebreyes, Principal HC Consulting & Health Equity Institute Leader, Deloitte.
Gebreyes added, “We all need to be honest with ourselves that we need to dismantle the structural and institutional policies that create an unfair playing field. If we don’t own that, then we’ve already lost our way.”
Jennifer Kingston, Principal, Head of DEI at Edward Jones, emphasized the need to build more equitable access to financial literacy and services. “The more we can provide financial education, especially at a young age, we’ll start closing those [gender] gaps between our wealth.”
9. Support Women on the Front Line
At the Dinner and Award ceremony, speakers expressed enthusiasm for Catalyst’s new Frontline Employees Initiative. “We’re at a turning point collectively as corporations and as individuals,” said Zoetis CEO and Awards Dinner Co-Chair Kristin Peck. “We need to start to look at the bigger picture [… and] we need to expand what we’re doing […] to include frontline workers.’
The Dinner and Award ceremony also featured remarks from Catalyst President & CEO Lorraine Hariton; Karen S. Carter; Catalyst Board Chair and Accenture CEO Julie Sweet; Dinner Co-Chair Kathy Warden, CEO of Northrop Grumman; and the CEOs of each Catalyst Award-winning company: Christopher Swift from The Hartford and Leslie Davis from UPMC.
Many thanks to our 2023 Convening Sponsor, Accenture, our Conference Presenting Sponsor, Target Corporation, all other Conference Sponsors, and our MC Melissa Majors, inclusive leadership consultant and coach.