International Women’s Day interview with Dean Yolande E. Chan

"We need you. There’s a place for you. And it’s not just about you. You’re doing this for more than just you – your sisters, your daughters, your colleagues, your friends, the next generation."

March 8th is International Women’s Day. On this occasion, McGill Desautels Dean Yolande Chan shares her insights on women in business and leadership, answering questions from the community.


Heather McCombie (Associate Director, BCom Student Affairs):
In your opinion, and based on your own experience, what could leaders do to promote more women in leadership positions, especially in academia? 

Yolande Chan: As a leader, it is important to be aware and informed about the women (or lack of women) in leadership in your organization. Lead with data. Reality (that is, hard data) can provide impetus for action. You may wish to encourage women to pursue leadership positions. Drawing attention to a leadership opportunity and providing a private nudge can help an applicant be aware of the opportunity and see herself in the role.

“Self-awareness, reflection, humility, and continuous self-growth are essential to becoming the best version of oneself,” says Yolande Chan. “We are works in progress.”

Having other women role models helps to provide inspiration, also. When women see other women in powerful positions, they move more naturally to these positions also. Be sure to provide women with necessary mentorship, support and resources to get to the top. There may need to be some additional flexibility too in career paths and work arrangements.

Women have made up about half the workforce since the 1980s. But we need to think about not only the number of women that we have within organizations, but also where they are placed, both vertically and horizontally.

Research shows that while women are well-represented at lower levels of organizations, they remain underrepresented in senior leadership positions.

My own experiences 30 years ago as a rare Black woman in my field in academia spurred my passion and dedication to advocate for and address equity, diversity, and inclusion (or EDI) issues throughout my career. For decades, I have made it a personal mission to help advance the number of women in my professional and academic communities, particularly in my field- information systems.

Diversity and inclusion are high priorities, and they should be a strategic objective, high priorities, for any leading organization today.

Tatiana Lamoureux Gauvin (Faculty Lecturer, Organizational Behaviour EDI Associate):
What can we do to be better allies to women in leadership? 

YC: There are many forms of allyship. An ally’s voice is important. The ally can speak up when women cannot readily speak and assist in calling out those whose words or actions are inappropriate. At times, silence can imply agreement or support. So don’t join inappropriate talk or jokes about women leaders or colleagues.

Also, use your voice to draw attention to the outstanding women leaders in your midst. Be their advocate when they are not in the room and suggestions are being sought for new leadership positions. Nominate qualified, talented women.

I think it is important, as women, we have a role to play too. We can actively challenge biases and stereotypes about women. We can acknowledge the biases and disparities that hinder women’s professional development and advancement, and work to build the solutions and break these barriers.

We can do this by listening to other’s experiences and taking their concerns seriously. We also need to continue to amplify women’s voices and ideas by promoting the work and accomplishments of women colleagues. This is a necessary step to creating a more inclusive workplace culture that values diversity and empowers everyone, including women, to succeed.

(Name withheld):
What do you see as the future of women at McGill University?

YC: I think that more than 50 per cent of our students at Desautels are now women. [BCom female percentage: 53 per cent, Fall 2022]

I imagine that there are very few, if any, programs with no women students. I anticipate continued growth in the number of women pursuing and excelling in academic careers here at McGill and I believe the University will continue to create new opportunities to support their professional development and recognize the outstanding contributions women have made to research, teaching and service.

Research conducted by leading scholars like Lisa Cohen, a Desautels professor and gender diversity expert, has shown us that in settings like McGill, where we see several women in leadership, this encourages even more women to pursue these roles, and promotes still greater gender equity.

I see a very bright future for women at McGill.

Rosalie Devroye (U3, BCom candidate):
In your opinion, how can women navigate challenges such as gender bias, discrimination, and imposter syndrome?

YC: I will share from my own experience. Throughout my own studies at MIT, Oxford and Western, I was acutely aware of my identity as a woman, especially as a Black woman. My original training was as a computer scientist and engineer. There were not many women in STEM when I started my academic career. While this was potentially intimidating, I knew that I was well suited to what I was doing, and I was determined.

Competence became very important for me. I went the extra mile to gain knowledge and skills and to be good at what I did. In my view, when you’re the only one who looks like you, it’s very good to be high performing.

I have also thought that it’s important to assist those coming behind me. For the last 20 years, I made it a personal mission to help advance the number of women in my professional and academic communities, particularly in my field of the management of information systems.

You ask how to navigate challenges of bias, discrimination, and imposter syndrome. I recommend seeking to be personally excellent and to engage supportive networks – networks that can help women access influential mentors and allies and develop important political skills.

While we as women can develop these communities, it is also important for organizations to create a culture of inclusivity and equity, to actively address systemic biases and barriers to advancement of women.

Marie-José Beaudin, (Executive Director, Soutar Career Center):
Your career journey thus far has taken you to all corners of the world and has put you in contact with many incredible business leaders, many of them women. Your progressive and inspiring approach to leadership is a breath of fresh air and proves that an organization can be high achieving and human centered. Looking to the future, what learnings do you wish to impart to Desautels women who are aspiring towards leadership positions today? 

YC: Thank you for your kind words. It is a pleasure to work with the talented and diverse teams here at the Faculty. What do I want to say to a Desautels women aspiring to a leadership position today?  Let me just say: We need you. There’s a place for you. And it’s not just about you. You’re doing this for more than just you – your sisters, your daughters, your colleagues, your friends, the next generation.

The road you take may be different from the path other colleagues have taken but, with tenacity and creativity, the leadership opportunity can be yours. I recommend that you aim to build a solid track record of performance and invest time in engaging networks of influence. Remember, the major limiting factor can be ourselves and our beliefs about what’s possible. So, remove this brake. Dream and realize your dreams.

Anita Nowak (BCom’97, PhD’11):
Empathy is often regarded as a soft skill especially in the workplace. How is the Desautels Faculty of Management preparing its future leaders to be empathic, and what are your thoughts on empathic leadership?

Thank you for your question. Empathy is the ability to sense what other people might be thinking or feeling. Empathic leadership is a critical component of effective leadership in today’s complex and rapidly changing business environment.

Empathic leaders are better able to understand and respond to the needs of their employees, customers, and stakeholders, and are more likely to create a positive and supportive workplace culture.

At the Desautels Faculty of Management, we recognize the importance of empathy in leadership and are actively working to prepare our future leaders to be empathic. We have integrated empathy into our curriculum and leadership development programs. This includes teaching students how to actively listen, engage in perspective-taking, and develop emotional intelligence.

Camila Sabogal (MBA candidate and President – Desautels Graduate Women’s Association):
What is the greatest lesson a woman can learn?

YC: There is no single greatest lesson but let me share some important ones. Authenticity is key – this is the freedom to be who you are, regardless of how out of the box this seems. Courageously express yourself authentically, for example being compassionate in a tough business setting.

Don’t assume there’s only one way to win, say in business – by being male, acting male, etc. But be smart about being authentic, about being vibrantly you, and loving what you do and who you are. Let vision and not fear shape your decisions. Inner strength, integrity and resilience are essential when facing challenges and tough situations.

Do not underestimate the power of community and supportive networks to build your endurance and foster growth. You may not go quicker but you will go further when you don’t travel alone. Self-awareness, reflection, humility, and continuous self-growth are essential to becoming the best version of oneself. We are works in progress.

Finally, women should never be deterred by lack of representation in their field or industry – pursue your goals with focus, confidence, and determination.

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Anita Nowak
1 year ago

“We are all works in progress.” Humility in academia. How refreshing!!