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Vandana Juneja, the new head for Canada of women's advocacy group Catalyst Canada at her condo in Toronto on Oct. 27, 2020.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

As Vandana Juneja steps into a new role as head of the women’s advocacy group Catalyst Canada, she says high-ranking men in business need to speak up about the push to get more women and people from diverse backgrounds into executive positions and on to boards.

“I’m very proud to be the first woman of colour to become executive director at Catalyst,” Ms. Juneja, who is of East Indian descent and was the first member of her family to be born in Canada, said in an interview Tuesday. She said many mentors and role models, both men and women, helped lift her up along the path to her new job, but it can be challenging for those who don’t see people like themselves in senior roles.

“I think that if we hear senior leaders talking about the need for diversity at the top, and we see them acting on it, although we may not yet see ourselves at the top, one by one, we will start to,” Ms. Juneja said, later adding, “We really need to engage senior male leaders in the conversation.”

Ms. Juneja is a lawyer by training and has worked on diversity and inclusion projects for more than a decade, including stints at both Bank of Montreal and Royal Bank of Canada. She joined Catalyst in 2013 and will be returning to the global non-profit organization’s Canadian operation after several years of leading its work in the Asia Pacific region. Catalyst, which has about 110 employees around the world and about a dozen in Canada, advocates for gender equity in senior roles, sponsors research and works with more than 800 organizations and companies on strategies to advance diversity.

She is keen to take on the new role at what she calls a “pivotal time," as the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women. At the same time, businesses are facing calls to promote greater diversity and inclusion in the wake of social movements sparked by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others in the United States and the treatment of Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) across Canada.

“We know that women continue to be chronically underrepresented in leadership roles in Canada. But COVID-19 has really exposed the inequities that exist in our society across gender and across race and ethnicity."

While women make up about half of the work force in Canada, Ms. Juneja said, they held about two-thirds of jobs lost during the pandemic. Some of that is related to layoffs, but others have left voluntarily owing to burnout or child-care obligations. Women also earn less than their male counterparts – about 87 per cent as much in Canada last year – and those challenges are all “amplified exponentially” for BIPOC women, she said.

“Catalyst research shows that women of colour, people of colour face an emotional tax in the workplace,” she said, noting that this can include a feeling of “being on guard” against experiences of bias, which can in turn affect other areas of wellness, including sleep. “So the pandemic has made a tough situation even worse, as many of these communities have also been impacted disproportionately by COVID-19.”

She says business leaders of organizations large and small could all take similar steps to promote equity. One is to understand the unique challenges facing women and consider new and better models for childcare and how to make the work environment more flexible.

She also emphasizes “leading with empathy” as well as recognizing the power of data. Ms. Juneja urges organizations to set targets and measure against them and to “embrace transparency when it comes to the pay gap.”

Ms. Juneja’s predecessor in the executive director role is Tanya van Biesen, who led Catalyst Canada for four years and is taking on a new job with the broader Catalyst organization as senior vice-president of global corporate engagement.

Catalyst on Tuesday also named four new members to its Canadian advisory board: Tabatha Bull, who is president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business; Nan DasGupta, who is managing director and senior partner of Boston Consulting Group Toronto; Jennifer Jackson, who is president of Capital One Canada; and David Simmonds, who is a visiting professor at Western’s School of Advanced Studies.

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