In the spring, the book Lean In (in French, En Avant to us ), by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s number two, made waves in the United States and found itself on the list of best sellers. His thesis? If women still do not have pay equity, delay occupying important positions as much as men, and do more than their spouses at home, it is because they themselves too often slow down their ascent. His remedy: Lean in, that is to say, in a colorful way, to “lean forward” to assume their ambition and invest in their career if they wish. A thesis that celebrates female ambition, in addition to identifying why it is still so frowned upon and why it is time to truly embrace equality between men and women. Big program! But what about women here?
“Women are in the labor market to stay there,” says Francine Descarries, professor of sociology at the University of Quebec in Montreal and scientific director of the Quebec network in feminist studies. This is an irreversible trend, and they will continue to progress.” A positive affirmation, but tinged with reserve. Because women still often earn less than men, they work more part-time, they are less often promoted than their colleagues and they have more difficulty taking their place in high decision-making circles. “Things are changing, agrees the sociologist. But very slowly.”
What is holding back or slowing down the rise of women? Here are four major obstacles and possible solutions.
1. We still live in a man’s world
“The patriarchy is in my opinion the first obstacle encountered by women who try to climb the ladder, advances Francine Descarries. Men have been in power for centuries. We are dealing with very stable institutions and well-established practices.” According to a Conference Board report based on Statistics Canada data, 0.32% of women held a senior management position in 2009, compared to 0.64% of men. They would also be 1.5 more likely to become middle managers. And only 12% of Canadian companies listed on the stock exchange have 25% or more women in management positions. In Quebec, boards of directors are made up of barely 14% women (compared to 40% in Norway, for example, where quotas are imposed).
If some backgrounds, such as the field of health, are more open to diversity in senior positions, others seem almost inaccessible to women: high finance and engineering, for example. “Municipal politics are also difficult to access,” adds Chantal Descheneaux, head of the Women and Power project, developed by the Center-du-Québec Women’s Movement Roundtable. The mandate of this project is to make authorities aware of the importance of equitable representation of men and women in decision-making positions. In Quebec, only 27.5% of municipal councilors and 16% of mayors are women.
Municipal councilor since 2003 and mayor of Bécancourt since 2012, Gaétane Désilets has suffered some sexist remarks, but does not feel that being a woman has really posed a problem for her. “The comments I receive from people in the community and from citizens are generally positive,” she says. A leader by nature and having already held various management positions, the new mayor arrived with considerable experience. “I still thought before embarking, because I knew it was going to require a lot of my time.” In fact, Ms. Désilets does not count her hours and she wants to warn women: “We often have difficulty delegating. When you have high professional responsibilities, it is essential to do so, otherwise, you risk getting burned.
We are also under-represented in the entrepreneurial community: less than 5% of businesses in Quebec are run by women. “Our challenge is to bring more women-led businesses into the supply chain of large organizations. Not that the latter is necessarily refractory: they are simply not aware of the absence of women in the milieu. It’s in their culture to do business with men,” explains Ruth Vachon, President, and CEO of the Quebec Business Women’s Network.
However, studies prove that companies run by women have nothing to envy for others. And it is a woman who has seen snow who says so. Today, former Minister of Finance and former President of the Treasury Board Monique Jérôme-Forget is a special advisor for the recruitment firm Korn-Ferry. She also gives lectures on the place of women in positions of power, a subject close to her heart and which inspired her to write Les Femmes au rescue de l’économie. To put an end to the glass ceiling. “It’s proven that a company with women in key positions is more profitable,” she explains. A study carried out in 2006 by HEC Montreal mentioned that women had a different approach, knowledge, and creativity and that they obtained more regular returns in the long term.
2. Balancing work and family is difficult
If Karine had had children, she would probably not have accepted the position of director of legal affairs for a large organization. “I knew it was demanding and I don’t think I could have devoted myself to it as I wanted,” explains the 35-year-old, for whom 50-hour weeks is the norm. She would like to have children but does not dare to imagine how she could reconcile these two spheres of her life. A very legitimate question if we look at the results of a vast global study published in 2012 by the Korn-Ferry Institute. More than half of female executives said that motherhood had somewhat (or significantly for 8% of them) hindered their careers. We can of course rejoice in the fact that fathers are undeniably more present with their children, but… “Women still have a double task, affirms Chantal Descheneaux. Who will find a babysitter if they have a meeting outside?”
According to a report by the Institut de la Statistique du Québec published this year, women devote an average of 3.7 hours a day to domestic activities, while men devote 2.5 hours to them. This gap of 1.2 hours is less than 20 years ago (it was 2 hours), but it remains. This hardly surprises Monique Jérôme-Forget. “It is still the women who are at the head of the family SME. They are the ones who often sacrifice their careers or feel guilty if they believe that their family is suffering because they work. Men don’t have such easy guilt! she argues. A mother of two children, she for her part agreed with her husband that they would hire an “au pair” to help them. “I had my children young, but it was clear from the start that I also wanted to invest myself in my work,” she explains. For mothers who wish to pursue their professional advancement, a family reorganization is essential. Sheryl Sandberg says in her book that true equality will come when 50% of businesses are run by women and 50% of households are run by men.
But the reality is such that, according to the Statistical Institute of Quebec, women earn 12% less than men, and 27% of them work part-time, compared to 12% of men. In addition, they sometimes come up against strong prejudices. “It’s still taboo for a mother to say that she wants to fulfill herself in her work, says Sophie Cadalen, psychoanalyst and author of the book Les Femmes de capacity. Do men like the others? But we have to be honest: many women find it difficult to let go home to make room for their spouse.” That said, there are new moms who want to stay home or work part-time, and that’s fine. “We are not forced to climb the ladder, concedes Ms. Cadalen. The important thing is that our choices come from us.”
Ideally, before starting a family, we will have thought about the place occupied by work in our lives. If we want to continue our progress, we will have to surround ourselves well. Natalie Quirion, 41, director of the Quebec Metropolitan Technology Park, knows something about it. “When I became director in 2009, my son was 3 years old and I was separated, she says. I called on a coach to optimize my time. And my son’s father and my family have been very, very present.” You also have to learn to let go: “You can’t do everything and be perfect in everything, and you have to accept that,” she continues. For example, when I am very busy with work for a period, I try to recover when it becomes calmer again.
What if we decide to put our careers on hold? We have to do it knowingly. “I would advise women not to leave their work, even if it means slowing down for a few years,” says Monique Jérôme-Forget. It’s boring to say, but 50% of unions end in divorce. Financial autonomy is important. I even advise women not to hesitate to ask for a promotion when they return from maternity leave. They will demonstrate that their work is important to them and that they believe they are the best to do it.”
Companies must also do their part. Some take initiatives to promote work-family balance (telecommuting, flexible hours, etc.), but not enough to achieve true parity. “Companies need to be more accommodating, especially during the 5 or 6 years following the return from maternity leave,” says Monique Jérôme-Forget.
3. Female ambition is still taboo
“I am extremely ambitious!” launches Kimi Desabrais, 33, at the head of Pür Cachet, a company that creates decorative objects in driftwood. Although Pür Cachet has only been around for a year, its products are sold at Maison Corbeil and Philippe Dagenais, among others. “My goal for this year is to distribute them in Europe and the United States,” she said. I want to be able to influence young people and tell them that when we want, we can. And that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be rich and successful!” The voice of the young entrepreneur apparently echoes several others. Indeed, according to the results of a survey conducted in the United States (2010-2011), 66% of women between the ages of 18 and 34 considered work to be one of the main priorities in their lives, compared to 59% of men.
Nevertheless, the words “success”, “power” and “ambition” do not necessarily have the same connotation for us because they are associated with men. “Seeing women hold positions of influence still has something incongruous,” says Sophie Caden. Normal, therefore, that women have difficulty appropriating these terms. For example, few women are comfortable with the term “power”. So it is often other motivations that fuel their rise. “When I feel like I’ve walked around the garden, I need to go to something else, explains Gertrude Bourdon, director since 2009 of the CHU de Québec, the largest university hospital center in Quebec. I had no career plan: she is built on the hazard of favorable occasions and thanks to the recognition of my peers and my superiors.” First a nurse, Ms. Bourdon then went to study at the School of Public Administration. Over the past 20 years, she has held various management positions in Quebec hospitals and at the Ministry of Health.
According to Francine Descarries, if we tend to perceive women as unambitious, it is mainly because they have been conditioned that way. “For centuries, roles have been defined, and particular characteristics have been attributed to men and women. But our mental structures are more constructed than innate.” Indeed, for every study that concludes that a woman would be less ambitious for biological reasons, two others say the opposite. “The more we advance in neurobiological research, the more we realize that the differences between men and women are not so clear cut, notes Sophie Caden. It is often their activities that modulate the brains of men and women.”
Ambition is therefore not exclusive to men. However, not all women are very ambitious, nor are men for that matter. We can very well live with that. “I would say that my ambitions lie elsewhere than in work, explains Sandra, 42, an accountant in a large SME. For example, in the sport where I excel and in my travel plans. Two years ago, I declined an administrative director position for personal reasons. I still stopped to think: after all, the salary was attractive! But the long hours and the extra responsibilities did not appeal to me.”
Certainly, women in positions of influence have to deal with sometimes harsh judgments from other women. “Yes, we can feel jealousy, admits Gertrude Bourdon. However, we need to be united with each other.” Francine Descarries also notes that women have more expectations of female managers. “As if we expect them to always do better than men and to do it differently.”
4. We lack confidence and audacity
Many women are reluctant to accept a promotion, go into business, or take the initiative to access a higher-level position because they doubt themselves. “Women devalue themselves easily, believes Chantal Descheneaux. However, they must convince themselves that they have their place!” The fact that the decision-making sphere has always been occupied by a majority of men largely explains this attitude. “In addition, many women do not like the style of management of men, sometimes a little abrupt, very direct,” says Ms. Descheneaux. Often more consensual, more meticulous, they fear having to deny their values to take their place. “Occasionally. I find it hard because I often have to fight to get my ideas across, admits Karine. I feel that my work
Gertrude Bourdon, who has 14,000 employees under her leadership, affirms that we need to trust each other more and that women can manage in their own way, without losing their souls. “I like to establish a form of intimacy with my directors. I ask them how they are and I have established certain rituals. For example, in the fall, I give everyone an apple to wish them a good start to the new school year.” Natalie Quirion, meanwhile, has banned meetings at 7:30 a.m., which are difficult to fit into family life. Women can change in some ways, but it will take more of them to bring about real change. “They must be more daring, insists Monique Jérôme-Forget. They shed new light and see things from different perspectives than men. They are complementary. Society would be better off if more women were in positions of influence.”
- All ahead. Women, work and power, by Sheryl Sandberg, JC Lattès, 2013, 250 p., $29.95.
- Women to the rescue of the economy. To put an end to the glass ceiling, Monique Jérôme-Forget, Stanké, 2012, 192 p., $24.95.
- Women of power. Do men like the others? , by Sophie Cadalen, Seuil, 2008, 180 p., $30.95.