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The role of women in the boardroom
The role of women in the boardroom: Marie-Hélène Nolet’s experience
Women are still in the minority when it comes to their participation on boards of directors. But more and more people are raising their voices in favour of diversity as a performance measurement, not just on administrative boards but in senior management positions. Marie-Hélène Nolet is the embodiment of that idea, having recently been named Chief Operating Officer of Desjardins Capital and having worked as an administrator for over twenty years. On the strength of her extensive experience in business management, this passionate leader is encouraging women entrepreneurs to get involved by taking a place in company boardrooms.
Q: You began working at Desjardins Capital as Chief Operating Officer this past January. What led to your taking this position?
R: My professional history has been unusual. During my career, I had the opportunity to work for large and small companies, for companies that were just launching or already well established, where I acquired experience in many areas: mergers and acquisitions, investment, strategy, partnerships, management, and governance. These complementary skills led me to Desjardins Capital. This division of Desjardins offers financing solutions and guides companies of various sizes through different kinds of projects during their lifecycle. It was a natural alliance.
Q: What exactly is involved in being an administrator?
R: This position has evolved a lot over the past twenty years, changing from being mainly focused on oversight to one of providing strategic guidance. Administrators advise the CEO and their executive team in terms of the strategic orientation and operations of the company to ensure its growth and continuity into the future. To accomplish this, you need to take the time to listen and be able to ask the right questions, make connections, and open doors.
Q: The Junior Chamber of Commerce of Montreal, the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, Aéroports de Montréal… Over the last twenty years, you’ve been on the boards of several organizations. What led to this interest?
R: I first started getting involved in this area when I was 22. At the time I was working at a large accounting firm. I wanted to broaden my horizons and professional network. My father suggested joining the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Montreal so I could meet professionals from other industries—lawyers, tax specialists, entrepreneurs, etc. I took his advice. Three years later, I was elected president of the organization.
I humbly admit I made a few mistakes when I started. You have to give yourself time to learn, observe, find things out, and get immersed in business culture. I learned a lot through my contact with others.
The key to learning governance concepts is to be exposed to that universe. What would be ideal, in my opinion, is to start at a non-profit organization. This enables you to give back to the community in addition to facilitating networking. I made some friendships that have stayed with me.
Q: As a woman, have you often felt your minority status in the boardroom?
R: I grew up in a family that made no distinctions between boys and girls. In my opinions, everything is a question of having the right attitude and self-confidence. I’ve never been afraid to ask hard questions and get into discussions.
I think administrators increasingly understand the importance of having diversity at all levels. It should also be noted that the changes made to the Canada Business Corporations Act (CBCA) has started to bear fruit. Almost all of the top 100 publicly traded companies are subject to this law and now have at least one woman on their executive board. Furthermore, the rate of women’s representation on the boards of all Crown corporations targeted by the Act Respecting the Governance of State-Owned Companies reached 51.6% as of December 31, 2020.
Despite this, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In 2020, the total number of female administrator positions in the country was only 20%. And equality still hasn’t been achieved on the boards of SMEs in Quebec. Not only are women underrepresented, but they’re often found in areas of activity in traditionally female roles, such as in the service sector.
Q: In your view, why do so many women still hesitate to take on positions as administrators?
R: Perhaps fear. We often minimize the experience we’ve acquired in our careers. Some women feel they need to have perfect credentials before taking on that position, while others say to themselves “I’m competent enough, I can do it!” Yet so often we learn by doing.
Other factors limit women’s access to the boards of organizations, whether due to prejudice or the difficulties of achieving work-life balance. You can’t hide the fact that sitting on a board brings responsibilities and takes up your time. It’s better to get involved at certain times compared to others. For those women in a position to do it, it’s a very rewarding experience.
Q: Why is it in companies’ interest to empower women to be on their boards of directors?
In terms of performance, it’s been shown that the most dazzling companies are those whose management teams have a 40% to 60% split between men and women. The same study states that when diversity is below 40%, teams perform less well, while at over 60% they’re more stable. This aspect of complementarity on boards also enables organizations to position themselves as leaders in the promotion of equality and equity. By bringing more women to the tables of boards of directors, our economic ecosystem will certainly be stronger.
Q: Men are also participating in this change. Who makes a good ally?
R: Allies are people who lend their support to women by promoting self-examination and supporting them in their efforts. An ally could be either a man or a woman, actually.
Over the course of my career, I’ve considered people who’ve acted as my advocates as allies, particularly when I was a young professional. They’ve helped me think about and understand myself better by asking the question “Out of all your experiences, which ones will help you?” They’ve encouraged me to participate and share my ideas.
Q: Desjardins Capital has established a training program in SME governance that prepares women to occupy seats on administrative boards. Would that have been helpful to you at certain points in your career?
R: First, let me quickly explain the program. The goal of Desjardins Capital’s Programme de formation en gouvernance des PME is to increase the number of women on the boards of directors of its member companies/clients. When Desjardins Capital takes an equity position in a company, it becomes a shareholder and an administrative board is established. The initiative involves building a community of women entrepreneurs—training them and equipping them to act competently as administrators—in order to fulfill the need expressed by our partner companies who would like to have more female board members.
This program acts as a springboard, allowing women to enrich the governance ecosystem at these companies. Of course I would have loved to benefit from the program at the start of my career!
Q: In your opinion, how can we contribute individually and collectively to relaunching the economy after the pandemic?
R: The pandemic has taught us the necessity of working together to keep moving forward. Our collective responsibility is even more important. Administrative boards have a prevailing role to play, due to the strategic decisions they make for their companies. As residents, we can also contribute to the futures of our companies and organizational dynamism by, for example, providing assistance to management teams tackling forward-thinking projects.
Q: In closing, what would you say to a woman who wanted to get involved in a board of directors but had hesitations?
R: Participating in a company’s evolution is extremely rewarding. All of the formal and informal conversations you have with people from different backgrounds are what drive us into the future.
Remember that getting out of your comfort zone brings out your best side, and that’s when the magic happens. You need to trust yourself and seize new opportunities.
 Since January 1, 2020, companies that are subject to this legislation, and who are listed on the stock exchange, must provide shareholders with information on their policies and practices in terms of the diversity of their boards and executive management, including the number and percentage of board members and executives who are women, Indigenous, members of visible minorities and people with disabilities.