Louise Champoux-Paillé is a woman of conviction. A lecturer in the department of strategy, social and environmental responsibility at Université du Québec à Montréal’s school of management, a member of the Order of Canada and a pioneering business administrator, she has been an agent of social change for decades. At a meeting organized by Universities Canada in Quebec City on February 28, she issued an unequivocal call to action to a group of about 40 female decision-makers in higher education: the time for women to take their places in the upper echelons of colleges and universities is long overdue.
But while the message may be simple, putting it into practice is less straightforward. “For years now, the place occupied by women in the early stages of their career has been growing strongly. I have witnessed this over 35 years. … However, there is stagnation at the top of the pyramid, a glass ceiling that must be broken,” affirmed Ms. Champoux-Paillé in French, pointing out that only 26 percent of Canadian rectorships and presidencies are held by women. “Unlike other battles, this situation is not one that time alone is going to change. Paradigm shifts are called for.”
Ms. Champoux-Paillé ventured a comparison with the business world, where “not everything is perfect,” but “mechanisms have been introduced” to ensure better representation of women. “In 2014, Quebec’s securities commission, the Autorité des valeurs mobilières, brought in a diversity policy,” she offered as an example. “Women’s representation rose because specific targets had been set.”
A host of measures to be implemented
The introduction of specific targets is one of the improvements needed to increase the number of women in the higher echelons of educational institutions. But it is not the only measure that needs to be pushed forward if conclusive results are to be attained quickly.
“It is proven that when organizations set targets, things change concretely. But results have fallen short of expectations, so we seek to understand how to go farther. As well as quantified objectives, we need deadlines,” Ms. Champoux-Paillé said. This calls for assessments of the situation so that “we know where we started from, and how far we have gotten.”
There is also a need to improve women’s impact by “introducing gender-balance policies and ensuring women’s presence on decision-making committees.” In Ms. Champoux-Paillé’s view, at least 30 percent women on committees would allow women’s voices to be truly heard in a group in which they make up the minority. “A lone woman on a committee has to battle all the time, which is not desirable.”
In addition, general appointment and hiring criteria need to be reviewed to make sure they do not favour one gender over another. “We shouldn’t necessarily insist that the members of decision-making committees be business executives, for example, because most business executives are men,” she said. “What one wants on a committee is talent, and talent does not always guarantee a management position.”
Ms. Champoux-Paillé pointed to initiatives that help women balance private and professional lives, and women’s mentorship programs as ways to help advance the cause. “Being able to rely on someone else’s experience and being able to enjoy the support of a contact inside a closely knit community are powerful ways to enable women to develop fully. These are concrete tools for advancement,” she said.
As she wrapped up, Ms. Champoux-Paillé noted that thanks to all these findings and potential solutions, matters are indeed changing – slowly but surely. “Seven years ago, whenever I spoke about women’s governance, I encountered reticence, but today that reticence is less pronounced,” she said, adding that she is happy to be playing a part in changing deeply rooted societal values.
It’s not just a matter of setting targets and deadlines, but the jobs themselves need to change. Women who are at this level are not willing to kill themselves to join the old boys club — they care about their health, their families, and the world. Places like McMaster (see http://bit.ly/2gmq8a2) have the right idea, and I really wish more institutions would copy their lead. But as McMaster’s Dean of Science notes, “I decided that the best way to address the problem was from within.”