2017 Honoree

Johanne Belanger

President/CEO, Tourism Toronto

“…I think society has to come together with one strong voice and focus on diversity and inclusion (gender, racial, sexual orientation, etc.) being a strength. We have to come together, not against one another. Canada, and especially Toronto, is strong because of our differences, not in spite of them. The world needs more Canada right now!”

In your opinion, what qualities make a “Power Woman”?

Living your life with passion and purpose while always remaining true to your authentic self. It’s also important to be a constant, life-long student.

With all the different issues one could focus on, how do you balance your efforts in pursuit of gender equality? Is it a global approach or a specific issue that you are passionate about?

I’ve never believed in the pursuit of work-life balance because first, I don’t believe it’s truly ever achievable, and second, balance by definition involves compromise of more than one thing to achieve. I like to strive to perfection and doing the best, so that doesn’t work. Instead, I adapted a concept I had heard in a key note and now try to live my in one of four quadrants: personal; family; work; community. Identify all my “priorities” to the appropriate quadrant and rank what’s most important at that time. I then focus on achieving what is required by being completing present in that quadrant until I achieve what’s required. I give myself permission to somewhat “neglect” the other quadrants and, over time, I have been relatively successful at achieving time in each quadrant, ensuring that I am completely fulfilled as an individual and have fulfilled my obligations to all others. It’s not always easy to do and sometimes I have to shake myself up to ensure I spend time into each quadrant, but one thing for sure, when I’m in a quadrant–I’m all in! For me, the issue of gender equality fits in every single quadrant and is just part of who I am and my passion for giving back. It might be that I’ve reached an age of more wisdom and am fulfilled more by what I can do for others than for myself now, but a passion was awakened in me about a decade ago, that I had not done enough to lend a hand to my female colleagues the same way that my mentors along the way had done for me to allow me to get to where I am today.

If you could have someone else’s job for a day, who and what would it be? Why?

Gordon Ramsay. I love to eat and I love to cook–it’s an obsession actually. A close second, however, would have been Marco Pierre White, who trained Ramsay. As a leader, there are times that I’d like to be able to emulate Ramsay’s fiery temper, his use of foul language and strict demeanor, but luckily for my colleagues, there are laws against that type of behavior in offices. I would love to talk to him about where he gets his inspiration; observe the man in action, without cameras, and see how he brings a team together to bring forward amazing creations to delight their guests. That would be a bucket list item for me.

Why do you think women’s reproductive rights are under attack? What policies would you propose that the U.S. government pursue (or change) to alter this?

Globally, it seems women’s health and security are under such attack; from religion, to cultural attitudes, to lax government protection, women are more vulnerable than ever.
I am fortunate to live in Canada, where in 1988, we became one of a small number of countries without a law restricting abortion. The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the abortion law as unconstitutional in that it infringed upon a woman’s “right to life, liberty and security of person.

Are you involved in politics at the local or national level? Why or why not? In what way do you work for women’s power and equality? What do you think is the number one action we as a society can take (e.g. affirmative action)?

No. I have never had an interest in getting involved in politics. Most recently, in my new role, I have had to work with/lobby elected government officials, and the time and processes that were required to do so reinforced my lack of desire to get involved. I am sure that all public servants enter politics with commendable and passionate desires to effect change, but the bureaucracy and “red-tape” they face prevents anyone from actually making progress. My commitment to claiming a voice for women has been focused on one at a time and smaller more targeted industry based focus rather than being able to affect large scale change.

In the time we’re living in right now under the current U.S. Administration, I think society has to come together with one strong voice and focus on diversity and inclusion (gender, racial, sexual orientation etc.) being a strength. We have to come together not against one another. Canada, and especially Toronto, is strong because of our differences, not in spite of them. The world needs more Canada right now!

What issues in the workplace contribute most to the gender pay gap: Accessibility? Unconscious bias (including questions about previous salary requirements)? Economic? Reproductive? Or some other nefarious reason. Why do you think these are still challenges we face?

I believe that the gender pay gap continues to exist for several reasons: 1) Bias remains in today’s work environment (whether it is conscious or unconscious); 2) Women still must take time out of the workforce for parenting and often remain the primary caregiver requiring more flexible schedules and time off, which sets them back compared to their male counterparts.

Can you tell us a short story in which you encountered a block in the work place and what you did about it?

In the early ‘90’s in my first position as the first, and only female, on a senior leadership team, a few female employees independently came to me to share their level of discomfort about the behavior and communication style of another male leader in a sister division. Each had already spoken to HR about their concerns before coming to me. I ended up going away on a business trip with this fellow colleague, and observed first-hand what the employees had shared. Upon return to the office, I expressed my first-hand experience to the president of the company, as well as relayed the concerns that had been shared with me by these female employees. My colleague was professionally very successful and an all-round great “Canadian boy;” however, he behaved inappropriately with female colleagues who didn’t fall for his charm. I had great respect for my boss, and was both surprised and disappointed with his response to my concerns: “It’s just a little locker room talk,” “Boys will be boys,” “Maybe everyone is misunderstanding.” My outrage to this response and lack of action was that same night to call and leave a voice mail announcing my resignation to a senior executive (and mentor) at our Parent Company. He immediately called me at home (he’s a workhaholic, so he had checked his voice mail that night) to discuss the circumstances that led me to take such dramatic action. He asked me for 24 hours before I did anything further. The next morning, I received a phone call from the EA to the Owner telling me to come to their offices at 10am. That was my first time spending one-on-one time with him in his office. He listened to me repeat my entire story without interruption. At the end, he asked me to withdraw my resignation and to give him 60 days to deliver on three promises–one of which was to investigate the complaints and take action up to and including termination. I don’t recall what the two other promises were, but within 60 days, the employee had been terminated and I continued to work for the organization for many more years. To this day, I have utmost respect and loyalty for the owner of that company!

Do you think that asking previous salary requirements in job interviews contributes to the pay gap between women and men? NY State recently outlawed this practice. Should we push for a nationwide ban?

I don’t think so. I’m not familiar with your U.S. laws so can’t comment on the latter questions. Interviewees can express their salary expectations for the position they are applying for. What I’ve seen happen is that female candidates sheepishly state their number, while male candidates confidently make their ask. Generally, the female candidate has asked for a lower number than their counterpart, thus undervaluing their worth.

Have you seen any changes in the political landscape for women over the past few years? If so, what are they?

Again, I am fortunate to live in Canada where, because of our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, the political landscape changed dramatically. He made a very important statement by creating the first gender-balanced cabinet. When he was asked why parity was important to him, he simply answered: “Because it’s 2015.”

Was there a defining moment or experience in your life that led you to where you are today? What was it?

I have had multiple battles with cancer, which I believe is proof that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Every day I try to live life to the fullest and make as many meaningful contributions and connections as I can. Nothing is insurmountable as long as you have your health.

Do you believe that open access to porn (including violent video games, social media etc.) contributes to gender inequality and violence against women?

No, I do not.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I was faced with a situation where I was flying to the U.S. to join a board in a new industry and felt very unsure of myself. As I was sitting in my hotel room and catching up with my assistant, her final words to me were, “Put on your big girl panties and deal with it!” At first, I was a little taken aback, but then realized she was absolutely right. I’ve remembered those words when facing many situations since then and have certainly shared that advice with other females along the way.

There are many studies that support the idea that a female presence in the board room increases the bottom line and leads to healthier work environments. What can we do to continue to support and enhance the growth and presence of women in high profile positions.

Awareness raising and good intentions just is not resulting in the changes required, not in a timely fashion. I’m not completely supportive of the imposition of quotas, as I still believe that board or other high profile positions should be obtained based on merit and competencies. I’m not even sure whether the imposition of quotas would drive the required changes, although they may help to accelerate reaching parity. Should publicly traded companies be required to publish their Diversity Policies and report on them in their annual reports? As consumers, we can choose to conduct business/give our money to different companies–consider our own buying decisions. Could we talk with our money and not support companies that do not have gender diversity/parity in their leadership/boards? We also need to find a way for women to advance to management roles in the same numbers as men if we want more women to be visible on boards. Women enter the workforce in same/similar quantities as men, but that number drops as time proceeds and more men than women advance to management roles. Why? Women take a pause to start their families. We need to find a solution to still take advantage of all the competencies which women bring to the workforce–flexible working hours; work from home. Lastly, women need to raise their hand and ask! They must learn to promote themselves; find sponsors or mentors who will speak for you/help you find your voice and learn to/make the time to network.

Who do you most admire? Why?

My father! He is a true people leader and a visionary. My father dedicated his life to retail, so he was always in the public eye. I always admired his ability to strike up a conversation with ANYONE; be engaged in meaningful communication and leave that person feeling like they were the most important person in the world. I try to do that with all the people I interact with and hope that one day I will be half the person he is.

I have many examples of why I think he is a visionary: 1) With his roots being from small town, rural, unilingual French speaking Québec, he had the foresight to believe that learning English was important (even if no one around him spoke the language) so at the age of four he put me into English school and he began taking English himself in night school. 2) In the summer I turned twelve his job required us to relocate from Quebec to Ontario. Normally these transfers occurred during a school year, so it was easier to integrate and make friends. We all know what unhappy teenage girls can be like, so he decided to sign me up for a junior golf program! He drove me out to the small public course where I joined about 20 young boys for golf lessons and rounds of golf. As much as I hated it at first, it became a life-long passion of mine and has certainly helped me with my professional life.

What is your favorite book (fiction or non-fiction)?

It’s hard to narrow it down to one favourite book. I am a voracious reader of all genres, but forced to pick one that rises to the top recently would be All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

What is your favorite place on earth? Why?

Hands down my favourite place on earth is at our lake property in Muskoka (2 ½ hours north of Toronto). Our cottage is on a seven acre wooded lot facing a beautiful, serene lake. My husband Scott and I try to get there as many weekends as possible, and although I love it all year long, throughout each of our four seasons I particularly love it in the Fall/Winter where we can sit in front of the wood fire place, curled up on the couch, reading and sipping a glass of wine. This is where we can escape the hustle and bustle of city life and unwind from the long days at work.

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