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Shedding light on the invisible rules

Equity, inclusiveness, diversity – these topics are a personal passion for Holly Catalfamo and the topic of a new book she has co-authored to help women break through barriers in the workplace.

Catalfamo, who is the College’s new director, Global Engagement (and former coordinator of the Honours Bachelor of Administration – Human Resources program) is the co-author of The Invisible Rules: What’s Really Holding Women Back in Business–and How to Fix It. The book, which was published in March 2021, aims to appeal to young and mid-career females who aspire to senior leadership, as well as employees and employers who are interested in creating a more inclusive, engaged, socially responsible and competitive organization.

Co-authored by Catalfamo and Paul Harrietha, the book exposes ‘invisible rules’ that hold women back in business and outlines ‘big biases’ that make it more difficult for women to compete for promotions with their male colleagues. It shows women how they can overcome biases, and reveals how organizations can achieve gender equity quickly, systematically and with minimal disruption.

With the book, we really wanted to examine why women are so poorly represented in the upper echelons of corporate Canada, and what can be done about it. – Holly Catalfamo

The subject is near and dear to Catalfamo. As a Human Resources professor and as an HR practitioner, she has always been committed to creating a positive workplace. She believes that the value of promoting equity, diversity, and inclusiveness is the primary foundation of a strong workplace culture.

“I firmly believe that inclusive workplaces that are welcoming of all individuals are more successful workplaces,” she said. “I also believe that this reflects the underlying values of the HR programs at Niagara and the values of Niagara College.”

Catalfamo first became involved with gender equality work through NC’s International and Research & Innovation divisions; specifically, their Mulheres Mils project in Brazil supported life-altering development for marginalized women through education and empowerment initiatives.

“This was such a transformational experience for me in so many ways,” she said.

Since then, she has continued her active engagement in development projects abroad and has become increasingly interested in what organizations should do to support women and address the “talent gap.”

She noted that women represented more than 50% of all employees in the workplace, yet even in 2021, are still drastically underrepresented in senior leadership positions. Less than 4% of CEOs in Canada’s top 100 leading companies are female, and women hold only 10% of the highest paying jobs in corporate Canada.

“As a woman, and as an HR professional, this is such a critically important issue to address,” she said. “With the book, we really wanted to examine why women are so poorly represented in the upper echelons of corporate Canada, and what can be done about it.”

She also has experienced firsthand how women face biases during their climb up the corporate ladder. She recalls applying for a managerial role early in her career and being asked during her job interview why she was applying for the position when she had two young children at home.

“I really didn’t believe that the other candidate – male with children – was asked that same question,” she recalled. “That experience was definitely an awakening for me.”

Catalfamo first crossed paths with Harrietha while she was teaching a course in Niagara University’s doctoral leadership program. As a student completing his PhD, Harrietha shared her passion for gender equity. Catalfamo was asked to sit on the committee for his dissertation, which explored the challenging journey of women seeking senior leadership roles within organizations. Following the dissertation, they decided to work together to expand his dissertation research to better understand what’s holding women back, and what can and should be done to address barriers many women face as they climb the corporate ladder.

Their research included interviews with 50 female executives from across Canada who shared their stories, barriers they faced and the successes they experienced. Meeting the leaders and hearing about their experiences was inspiring for Catalfamo who felt a sense of connection with them as well as a respect for their accomplishments.

“The individuals we interviewed for the book were absolutely remarkable. They were so generous with their time and their willingness to share their lived experiences in such an authentic way,” she said. “We believe that their stories will resonate with our readers – they are incredibly relatable and definitely inspiring.”

After four years in development – with countless weekends, evenings and vacation time dedicated to the project – The Invisible Rules was released in March 2021 and is now available via Indigo and Amazon.

“Working with my co-author, Paul, was a real pleasure. We both brought differing perspectives to the table, which has definitely helped us to craft a book that we hope accurately reflects the experiences of our leaders.”

atalfamo hopes the book will make a difference; that it will inspire corporate leaders to make meaningful changes within their companies and recognize unconscious biases and systemic issues which have resulted in a significant imbalance on their leadership teams and boards.

While The Invisible Rules focuses on the experiences of women, she believes it has a much broader application.

“Although our focus in The Invisible Rules is the experience of senior female leaders, the issues for all individuals who have been systemically excluded from leadership roles in organizations needs to be addressed within our workplaces,” she said. “We all need to own this – this isn’t an HR issue – it’s an organizational issue. And, as we all know, diverse and inclusive workplaces are more creative, innovative, and ultimately more successful.”

Through the process, Catalfamo noted that she has developed a deeper understanding of the importance of bias-free HR practices throughout the process, and how HR professionals have a responsibility to adopt policies and procedures, which create pathways for all individuals within an organization. These values are infused into her teaching experiences in the classroom.

“We have great discussions in class, and I learn so much from my students as well,” she said.

This is the first book co-authored by Catalfamo, who has previously published articles, case studies and book chapters.

A resident of Niagara Falls, Catalfamo has been a full-time professor at NC for over 17 years before taking on the position of director, Global Engagement, with the College’s International division in July 2021. She holds a doctorate of education from the University of Toronto with a focus on leadership and leadership development. In April 2018, she received the Colleges and Institutes Canada Gold Medal for Leadership Excellence Award for faculty – the highest level of the award in the category – in recognition of her consistent excellence in teaching and its significant impact on the personal and academic growth of students.