Sixty years ago, when founder and first president Felice N. Schwartz created Catalyst in 1962, “Help Wanted” advertisements were segregated by gender and race, and the law permitted companies in the United States to pay women less than men. The landscape has changed dramatically in the decades since then, and so has Catalyst. We have grown into a global organization with an intersectional focus—influencing, shaping, and guiding companies worldwide to build workplaces that work for women.
Catalyst drives change with preeminent thought leadership, actionable solutions, and a galvanized community of multinational corporations to accelerate and advance women into leadership—because progress for women is progress for everyone.
Over the course of our history, Catalyst has evolved and now focuses on four critical areas in our mission: to advance women into leadership positions, demonstrate how to lead for equity and inclusion, engage men as gender partners, and look ahead to women and the future of work. Our small, US-based organization grew into a formidable multi-regional presence. And as new challenges emerge, Catalyst continues to address them.
Core Goal: To Advance Women Into Leadership Positions
When Catalyst was launched, the organization was focused on helping individual women enter the workforce and thrive there. We advocated for flex-time, part-time, and job-sharing—unheard of concepts at that time—and participated in several early pilot programs demonstrating that these positions were effective solutions for employers. Founder Felice Schwartz’s wildly popular 1972 book, How to Go to Work When Your Husband Is Against It, Your Children Aren’t Old Enough, and There’s Nothing You Can Do Anyhow, made the case that companies should hire women who had spent time out of the workplace to raise families because they made great employees.
During the 1970s, as many women in the US increasingly prepared to spend a substantial period of their lives in the workforce, Catalyst created national career resource centers as well as a comprehensive library at our New York headquarters and connected women with resources offering career counseling—all part of our efforts to assist individual women getting in, or back in, to the workforce. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, we also focused our efforts on undergraduate women, encouraging thoughtful career planning and preparation.
We drove the conversation about women in corporate leadership, launching in 1977 our Corporate Board Resource, later named Corporate Board Placement, to help companies identify qualified women for their boards of directors. We demonstrated that there were women ready and qualified for board service, helped companies identify those women, and began to annually track the number of women on boards, publicizing when progress occurred–and when it did not.
By the late 1980s, Catalyst recognized that the obstacle women faced was not themselves—it was organizations. They were the ones that needed to make real changes. In response, we made a critical shift. Rather than emphasizing what women could do to help themselves, we focused on what companies should do to create better, more women-friendly workplaces and ensure access to the highest ranks of leadership.
To that end, we began advising companies that wanted to do better. Our research, coupled with consulting, refined our understanding of what works, what doesn’t, and why when it comes to creating systemic change for women. From a hard-data, bottom-line approach, we came to understand that to change organizational behavior to drive inclusion, we needed to engage both hearts and minds.
We also transformed our prestigious Catalyst Award event, launched in 1976, to recognize individual women with high potential in their companies. In 1987, we began to honor companies with proven results in advancing women—rather than elevating individual women.
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In 1989, Schwartz published “Management Women and the New Facts of Life” in the Harvard Business Review, about the obstacles women face in the workforce. Schwartz proposed a separate track for women who planned to take an extended parenting leave and desired flexibility to help balance career and family responsibilities. That led to a discussion of the “mommy track.” This controversial phrase was coined by The New York Times and not used by Schwartz. The article sparked a much-needed conversation about women’s desires to have a family and career and about mothers returning to the workforce after leaving to raise children.
During the 1990s, Catalyst turned its lens to the absence of women from boards and executive suites. We produced two reports—The Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners of the Fortune 500, along with The Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors of the Fortune 500—showing that in fact, many companies lacked any women at the highest levels. We told organizations: You need to do better. Many leading companies were unhappy with their low scores, which was the point; our goal was to expose companies to prompt change—and many did.
Through our research, we also found evidence that sponsors—and not just mentors—were especially influential to career advancement. Our longitudinal research series on Highly Talented Employees in the Pipeline, which studied the careers of MBA graduates from top business schools across the globe over the course of a decade, demonstrated that sponsors—who used their influence to get women visible and mission-critical opportunities—were key.
That research inspired the formation of the Catalyst Women On Board™ initiative matching CEOs and board chairs with exceptional women board candidates. CEOs and board chairs acted as mentor-sponsors, opening their networks. When “who you know” influences a woman’s ability to get named to boards, active sponsorship is critical.
On International Women’s Day 2017, we partnered with CEOs through the Catalyst CEO Champions For Change initiative to share case studies of organizations that have built inclusive work cultures. And in 2020, Catalyst co-founded the Gender and Diversity KPI Alliance to support the adoption and use of a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) to focus attention on pay and representation in the all-important talent pipeline of an organization. Gender equity can’t be achieved without measurement—because what gets measured gets managed.
Our research also pointed to a cultural problem: persistent gender stereotypes about women in leadership roles that impede women’s advancement. In the early 2000s, we began to advise key actions to prevent stereotypes from influencing decision-making, and later we started calling out unconscious bias through our award-winning #BiasCorrect campaign, creating social media tools that help expose the invisible ways that women, particularly women of color, still are held back.
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Focus on Inclusive Leadership
Of all of our research, among our most significant was about women of color and the unique barriers they faced in US workplaces. In the late 1990s, Catalyst began collecting and reporting the number of women of color officers and board directors. The data showing that women of color were left farther behind than White women enabled us to deepen our research.
We launched a groundbreaking three-year study—the first of its kind—on the barriers women of color face in their efforts to advance in the workplace, Women of Color in Corporate Management. This study stirred a national conversation in the United States about the challenges facing Black, Latina, and Asian American women in management.
Catalyst also published trailblazing research that named and detailed the concept of “Emotional Tax,” which refers to the “combination of being on guard to protect against bias because of race, ethnicity, and gender and experiencing the associated effects on well-being and ability to thrive at work” among people of color. This research series uncovered the reality that Asian, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and multiracial employees in the United States and Canada face on an everyday basis, in and outside of work, and has offered insights and actions to build more inclusive workplaces.
Catalyst has been an early, and consistent vocal advocate for inclusive workplaces. To enable all women, particularly women of color, to contribute, organizations need to create an environment of inclusion. In 2014, we created a model of inclusive leadership behaviors, which we updated in 2016 and 2019 to emphasize self-reflection, allyship, and fair treatment of others. Alongside this research, we developed and began delivering innovative workshops and trainings to help organizations take action and cultivate more inclusive leaders.
To recognize leaders, or champions, who represent the gold standard for inclusive leadership in corporate Canada, we launched Catalyst Honours in 2010. Champions challenge their colleagues to build inclusive workplaces where all individuals can thrive. Their leadership example motivates their corporate colleagues and industry peers to think and act inclusively.
Engaging Men as Gender Partners
In 2009, after nearly five decades of focusing on women in the workplace, Catalyst committed to understanding the role that men play as critical agents of change, as they often held influence—yet there were gaps in the research to understand what hinders men, and what prompts them to advocate for change, within organizations. We wanted to know why some men were more actively involved in the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion and why others were absent from the conversation. This inquiry was the seed of our “engaging men” research project.
As we collected data, we added groundbreaking programming that inspires men to leverage their unique opportunity and responsibility to be advocates for equity. We also created an online community that included a newsletter, blog, and discussion forums with the goal to deepen learning and engagement with alumni and the broader community. This space for men to come together and learn with each other and their colleagues across genders, which Catalyst curated, became the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) initiative.
In 2016, with a major gift from Procter & Gamble, we launched the MARC Leaders Immersive, the first learning component of the initiative. And in 2019, with Catalyst’s largest-ever donation of $5 million from Chevron, we developed and piloted MARC Dialogue Teams, expanding our programming to become a global grassroots movement. After participating in a MARC workshop, the rate at which men report they will engage in gender partnership actions at their workplace skyrockets—in some cases, from only a third of participants to nearly all. Today, MARC is recognized as a pioneer and thought leader in inspiring and equipping men to advocate for real change.
Looking Ahead: Women and the Future of Work
In the 21st century, Catalyst widened its outreach to Europe, India, Japan, and Australia, and opened an office in Canada and an entity in Switzerland, embracing an increasingly global and intersectional agenda.
Catalyst also focused on a more responsive, human workplace to counter dizzying transformations such as artificial intelligence, social movements, demographic shifts, and global disruptions. How companies adapt determines their success, which we well know is possible only when women are full partners in the workplace of the future.
To that end, we prepared organizations through our Women and the Future of Work initiative in 2019, prioritizing teaching new skills—including empathy—through reskilling and upskilling programs. These proactive efforts expand and enhance the talent pool, generating more innovative and inclusive work teams.
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Soon after we launched this initiative, the Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating impact globally on women, particularly women of color. Organizational leaders reckoned with profoundly changed work arrangements, including the creation of new remote work arrangements. And, in the wake of the global reckoning on racism, including the Black Lives Matter and #StopAsianHate movements, Catalyst helped shape awareness that organizations must have challenging conversations around race and racism, leading with an intersectional approach to ensure employees are valued.
As difficult as these disruptions were, they prompted corporate leaders to assess what they value, how they lead, and how their teams best work together. It became clear that the Catalyst community, along with our research, tools, and solutions to build workplaces that work for women, are more relevant and urgent than ever before.