Among the distinguished guests at McGill's Spring Convocation will be Monique Jérôme-Forget, who will receive an honorary doctorate, the University’s highest accolade, in recognition of her contributions as a civil servant, politician, academic and mentor. Returning to where it all began, Ms. Jérôme-Forget says she owes everything to her doctorate in psychology from McGill, which has served her well throughout her career.
A groundbreaking female politician, Jérôme-Forget has remained an active force in public policy affairs even after leaving politics. She has made it her mission to encourage and inspire women to strive for the highest spheres of power.
While remarking that some progress has been made since her time at McGill, she reminds us that statistics on gender parity do not lie. “Women are still not at the head of corporations, only 5% of these positions are occupied by women and only 15% are representing on boards of directors in certain countries,” she says. This is among the many gender-related issues raised in her book, Les femmes au secours de l’économie: pour en finir avec le plafond de verre, published in 2012.Today, she continues to stress the importance and benefit of having women in high ranking positions, not only out of moral concern but as a crucial component for economic development and success. She was among the first to shed light on this issue years ago, and research studies have since emerged to support this thinking. In a 2017 McKinsey report, the case is made for greater parity in the economy and top management in corporations. It is now regularly proven that economic growth would increase significantly with women more involved at these high levels, and there is still progress to be made in Canada and the United States. Women bring a fundamental component to analyzing problems, evaluating risks and providing a range of possible solutions. When women are well-represented in an organization (when they occupy between 40-50% of positions), the culture of that organization shifts. Such changes can even be seen at 25% female representation, but Jérôme-Forget maintains that the goal should be at 40%.
The Role of Government and the Quota Controversy
The huge debate on quotas involves oppositional claims of compromising merit to hire women who are not qualified. To this, Jérôme-Forget candidly responds: “I have spent my life meeting unqualified men, in high ranking roles and on boards of directors.” She questions why women must wait for a shift in attitude to reach higher levels of representation. “With only slight increases each year, we will have to wait 70 years before reaching this objective,” she says.
She reminds us that there are still executive and ministerial level councils made up exclusively of men. As one half of the total population, this low representation of women is simply illogical and puts aside half of the talent. Since 1980, women have been studying at the university level at equal rates as men. Now in their 40s, only 4% of these women are presidents of companies according to Jérôme-Forget.
A number of countries have adopted legislation to impose a certain percentage of representation. In Norway for instance, women have reached 40% representation on corporate boards. France passed similar legislation with the same objective. After five years, the country went from 12% to 40% representation on executive boards. Examples such as these show how governments can stop this trend of leaving women aside and out of the real economy.
The Glass Ceiling and the Sticky Floor
Jérôme-Forget has some advice for women based on her experience. In the early 1980s, while serving as Assistant Deputy Minister in Ottawa, she was one of only eleven women holding a position at that level. This group of eleven women supported each other well, meeting regularly to encourage and assist their fellow female colleagues in climbing the ranks. She used this approach throughout her career and she encourages women to find ways to support one another. While working as Chair and CEO of Quebec’s Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CSST), she made sure that there were women in director roles, despite male dominance of the industry.
Jérôme-Forget points out that in some cases women need to change their attitude about themselves. The glass ceiling remains in full effect, but there is also a need to talk about the ‘sticky floor’. “Many women doubt themselves or hesitate to apply for higher ranking positions if they feel they are missing one or two qualifications. The men do not hesitate in similar circumstances and they end up getting the position!” Her message to young female graduates is to never hold themselves back from what they want: “Osez mesdames! Aim for the highest position. Do not settle for the number two.”
Despite our progress, there still is a need for a cultural shift. More female role models are needed to challenge the status quo, and Monique Jérôme-Forget is proud to be considered among them. As a member of Quebec’s National Assembly and Minister of Government Services, she was the first woman to serve simultaneously as President of Quebec’s Treasury Board and Minister of Finance.
As she continues on her mission to reach young women, she also has an important message for young men: “We need them to become good feminist allies and real partners in this struggle to make sure we have a just society.”
Monique Jérôme-Forget will accept her honorary degree and address graduates at the Arts Convocation Ceremony on Monday, June 4 at 3 p.m.