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Rasha Rehman headshot

This Coalition of Companies Wants to Close the Gender Gap: Is It Working?

By Rasha Rehman
An empty table in a boardroom.

(Image: Benjamin Child/Unsplash) 

Leaders looking to improve their company's performance on gender equity have a successful coalition to learn from. More than 80 global CEOs are searching for the best ways to advance gender equity as a part of the Catalyst CEO Champions For Change initiative. 

Catalyst, a global nonprofit focused on advancing gender equity in the workplace, observed that women's representation in leadership roles was stalling, said Andrew Grissom, the nonprofit's director of community growth. To drive progress, the team formed a coalition of business leaders who were advocates of women’s leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to join Champions for Change. 

To qualify to join the group, companies must have at least two women on their senior leadership teams who report to the CEO and at least two women on their boards, Grissom said. One of those women must also identify with a marginalized racial or ethnic group, and the company has to have a Catalyst membership.  

The nonprofit has tracked the CEOs' gender equity commitments since 2017 — and the leaders made good on their promises to advance women across racial and ethnic groups into leadership roles while raising the bar on accountability, measurement and transparency, according to a recent Catalyst report

What sets “champion” companies apart 

In the past three years, 93 percent of the companies in the CEO Champions For Change group conducted a pay equity review, according to Catalyst’s report. In comparison, 58 percent of all U.S.-based companies voluntarily conducted pay equity reviews during that time. 

"Nearly all Catalyst Champions for Change companies are conducting these reviews,” Grissom said. “We define [a pay equity review] as close examinations of workforce and compensation data that ensure compensation and awards are equitable across gender, race and ethnicity. These reviews are no longer elective. They are table stakes for leading-edge companies today.” 

Pay equity has positive implications for attracting top talent, reducing turnover rates and driving economic growth. Eliminating the gender pay gap will provide an estimated $447.6 billion to women and their families while reducing their poverty rate by half, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy.

Companies in Catalyst’s initiative also concentrate on retaining and advancing women in leadership, including women of color. Though the representation of women in senior leadership roles has increased over the past decade, women of color are not included in this progress. In fact, women of color are still underrepresented in leadership roles, and they are most often absent at C-suite levels. In Champions for Change companies, women occupy 30 percent of executive positions and 34 percent of senior managerial positions — compared to 24 percent and 29 percent, respectively, in other companies. 

Advancing in the boardroom is another challenge that women face. The average percentage of board seats occupied by women at companies around the world is 19.7 percent, according to research from the consulting firm Deloitte’s Global Boardroom Program. In recent years, the tenure of directors who are women has declined from 5.5. years to 5.1 years, compared to a 7.6-year average tenure for directors who are men.

Companies in Catalyst’s initiative are outperforming their peers in this area, too — 37 percent of their board seats are held by women, compared to 30 percent of board seats across all Fortune 500 companies.

One example of a leading company in the initiative is Zoetis. The animal healthcare provider set five-year goals to increase the representation of people of color and advance women's leadership. And it's already made progress, increasing representation of women at the director level and above from 32 percent to 40 percent globally since 2020. It also increased overall representation among people of color in its U.S. workforce from 21 percent to 25 percent, according to 2023 disclosures

The keys to success

When women of color do reach the top levels at Champions For Change companies like Zoetis, they're likely to stay: These firms collectively retained at least 89 percent of women who identify with marginalized racial and ethnic groups at the manager, senior manager, and executive levels, according to Catalyst’s report.

The nonprofit attributes this success to these companies' use of employee resource groups (ERGs), as well as programs focused on sponsorship, mentorship and career progress — which build a community and opportunities for development and networking. 

“ERGs are instrumental in creating compelling work environments for women to stay and thrive,” Grissom said. Additionally, ERGs provide a safe space for women to network and connect to career opportunities. Both formal and informal sponsorship programs help women connect to and learn from senior leaders, and they're crucial for their career advancement, according to Catalyst.

Research shows that the obstacles in the way of women's leadership are related to discrimination and unconscious gender bias. Traditionally, the spotlight is on organizational culture to close the gender gap, but the CEO Champions For Change companies show that going beyond the internal organizational environment and taking the initiative to set high global standards is a robust way to move toward gender equity and propel others to follow suit. 

Rasha Rehman headshot

Rasha is a freelance journalist with experience in external communications and publicity. She is a Ryerson School of Journalism graduate and has worked on various media and communication campaigns in film, home development and the nonprofit sector. Rasha is passionate about storytelling for impact, whether she focuses on social enterprise, transforming our food system or making the business world more inclusive.

Read more stories by Rasha Rehman