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Canadian women’s advocate Deborah Gillis has been named the new chief executive officer of New York-based Catalyst, a global organization that promotes the advancement of women on boards of directors and in senior roles.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Canadian women's advocate Deborah Gillis has been named the new chief executive officer of New York-based Catalyst, a global organization that promotes the advancement of women on boards of directors and in senior roles.

Ms. Gillis, who lives in Toronto, will become the first non-American head of the non-profit organization. She previously served as the head of Catalyst Canada and most recently has been chief operating officer of the organization.

She will become CEO on Jan. 1, 2014, when current CEO Ilene Lang steps down after 10 years at Catalyst. Ms. Gillis, 48, will be just the fourth CEO to head the non-profit organization in its 51-year history.

Catalyst is best known for its in-depth research reports about women in leadership positions, but has increasingly evolved to also provide member companies with advice and strategies to improve diversity in senior ranks. The organization has 107 employees and an annual budget of $16.5-million (U.S.).

Ms. Gillis, who will move to New York for the new job, said it is meaningful that she will be the first non-American chief executive because Catalyst has made an effort in recent years to become more globally focused. Catalyst also has offices in California, Toronto, Switzerland and India, and is preparing to open an Australian office. The organization has incorporated in Australia this year in preparation for starting a new office, and has done work in many other countries.

"If you think about the changes in the world we live in, the companies who are members of Catalyst have operations all over the world, and they are looking to us for insights and advice on how to ensure talented women in those countries have an opportunity to succeed and advance," Ms. Gillis said in an interview.

She said one of her key efforts at Catalyst will be to continue the organization's transition "from being a driver of awareness to a driver of change," which means increasingly offering companies practical assistance on advancing women.

"We're really looking to focus on solutions," she said. "Business leaders are looking to us and saying, 'We have a problem. … We're looking to advance women to leadership and we've not made the progress we'd like to, so what can we do?' Our focus is on answering that question for business leaders around the world."

Catalyst's often-quoted research will continue to be critical for the organization because it is important "to ground conversations with business leaders in facts, data and analysis," she added. Catalyst also organizes events where business leaders can share information about practices that have been successful, and is increasingly offering consulting advice to individual member companies that are developing diversity strategies.

Prior to joining catalyst in 2006, Ms. Gillis worked in policy roles for the governments of Nova Scotia and Ontario and later moved into consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Grant Thornton. She ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in Nova Scotia's 2003 provincial election, and ran was selected by former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff to run for the Liberals federally in the Ontario riding of Halton in 2011, but withdrew from the race before the campaign began after accepting a promotion at Catalyst.

She said she has remained at Catalyst because she is committed to the cause of advancing women.

"The motivation in my life has always been around making change in one way or another," she said. "As a woman who has worked in the public sector, in politics and in the private sector, this is really important to me personally."

Ms. Lang said Catalyst has become "the go-to resource" for expert research, and said Ms. Gillis has the skills to take Catalyst further.

"Having worked closely with Deborah Gillis since hiring her, I have seen her remarkable leadership first-hand," Ms. Lang said in a statement. "Experienced in both business and public policy, she is the right person to take Catalyst to the next level."