Last week, I had the great pleasure of speaking to a group of science and engineering students from the Lassonde School of Engineering at my alma mater, York University. Called “W.I.S.E.” (Women In Science and Engineering), the two-month-old club was established to be an empowering support group. This group knows there aren’t as many women as men in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). (A recent statistic shows that women entering these studies is at a stagnant 17-18%.) They care about the future, about making their mark and about having a positive impact. They want to be leaders who do the right thing and, in being leaders, they want to understand how they should prepare for the future.
The club members are smart. They’re excited. They want to succeed but, at the same time, they see a future that is wide open with possibilities, and they want to make good choices. They are welcoming of support and guidance regarding how to maximize their potential, how to remain grounded and confident when confronted with fears, disappointments and uncertainties, and how to manage their lives, both now as students and later as working women and men…
Yes, the exciting part is that W.I.S.E. is really for everyone, even though it was founded by women. Male students are part of the group and were also in attendance for my presentation. Both men and women want to be clear about how they can achieve their own potential and support each other in doing so.
It was truly inspiring for all of us to exchange together. I was invited to present to the STEM students to share a glimpse of my path to becoming a successful leader, mentor and bonding specialist; insights on how to break the glass ceiling; suggestions on how to succeed in a technology field; and what should every woman can do today to become an effective leader of tomorrow.
We had a full house, while I had a full agenda! When I graduated in 1980, I was a minority. The number of women enrolled in computer science was quite low back then, and the students were keen to hear about my experiences. They were pleasantly surprised to hear that my journey had not been a straight path, and that I didn’t let tragedies and challenges define me.
In sharing about my journey, I wanted to inspire the students about the influence family values and education have had in my life, my academic education and events that shaped my career. I spoke of how the fulfillment of my life today has been greatly defined by the fact that I’m reflective. I have most often created my own role, defining my own path. Trusting my inner guidance, I thrived in creating, leading new initiatives, applying myself and always following my heart.
I mentioned that I had lost my father when I was 2 and a half years old and that my college years were some of the most difficult years in my life: I was learning English as a second language, I was away from home and greatly isolated. I still managed to do my four-year degree in three years and landed a great job at Shell Oil upon graduation.
I believe that not letting circumstances define you is key. Of course, you need to feel your emotions and be aware of what hurts you and seems insurmountable. But through it all, you need to find the courage to peel the layers that make moments heavy, in order to get in touch with who you aspire to be and be confident that you can be all that you are.
I mentioned that my mother has been and is my greatest inspiration. In the face of challenges, she urged me to not develop a thick skin but to be courageous, grounded, compassionate, transparent and humble. My mother gave me the confidence to know myself. She sensed that I knew what I was good at and supported me in expressing my own talents. She always believed that I could do anything I wanted to do. She never made the fact that I was a science-oriented student a gender issue.
I shared with the students that self-knowledge is important in leading ourselves, in taking the time to know ourselves and what we are naturally good at, and in understanding what is not innate in us. Based on that level of awareness, we should not force ourselves to be who we are not. And, while we think we are on the path that we are passionate about, we can’t shy away from addressing challenges.
In your life– at school, in relationships and with your career– you will mess up. Sometimes you won’t meet the expectations placed on you. You might even follow a path that wasn’t really meant for you, and one day wake up to find yourself in unfortunate circumstances. In each case, you have the responsibility to yourself to look out the window to the future, decide how you want to be in that future, and move on. Doing the right thing isn’t always the easiest path, but it’s a path you can stand tall on. We must be inspired to be who we aspire to be.
Reflect, improve, go forward and do the right thing. No WISE women, or men, have room for anything less in their lives.
It was a privilege for me to present to the students, to begin a new relationship with them as their new supporter, and for them to trust me. Here are some of the testimonials they sent me right after our meeting:
Johanne is very approachable, and this event was an eye opener on how to sustain women in science and engineering fields. Tackle the deep rooted fears! Together with the guidance of Johanne, I am sure W.I.S.E will create a platform to make women successful in their endeavours!
-Manjeet Kaur, W.I.S.E. Co-founder
I walked into the room not knowing what to expect and only having this vague idea of who Johanne was. I was intrigued by her professional title cause I had never heard of anything like it before, but after she spoke to us I realized why she was so successful in her career and what made her stand out. She left me feeling inspired, motivated and invincible. All the small thoughts in my head of not being able to do anything vanished, and I knew I could do anything.
-Rahma Shakir, W.I.S.E. Co-founder
The conference meeting with Ms. Johanne Bouchard was extremely influential and helped me to realize the possible outcomes I can achieve in my academic and professional life. Being treated as a potential intellectual leader rather than a mere student was immensely uplifting and encouraging. Johanne’s warm and humble response to all the questions really helped me to see things in a different perspective, and I thank Ms. Bouchard for this.
-Farzia Dilawar Khan, W.I.S.E. Public Relations
I enjoyed not only the encouraging and resonating stories shared by Johanne, but also the insight she kindly contributed about supporting the growth of the others. The conference was truly remarkable, like many more, I came out of the conference feeling empowered. I’m so grateful in having a developing community that vision to become stronger together, hand in hand, and am very proud to be part of W.I.S.E. to propagate that courage and motivation.
-Rose Zhou, W.I.S.E. Secretary
I felt very tired when I came to the event due to the large amount of work, lack of sleep, etc. But Johanne made me realize, that I am not the only one who has to study a lot -‐she finished her degree in three years, away from home, and learned English from scratch. …And, at the end of the day, it paid off. It inspired me to keep going, and keep learning French, just like she learned English. Also, the event was organized very well technically.
-Tetiana Sitiugina, W.I.S.E. Public Relations
The event was great. Johanne shared her experience with us, and I found it inspiring. I hope it was inspiring for the rest of the people present in the room because it really shows that there is no disadvantage being a woman in the field of science and engineering. All you need is perseverance, the will to continue. I hope as a man I will be able to contribute to the W.I.S.E. program as well.
-Md Zahed Hossain
I thought it was very interesting because I’ve never been to a Skype conference before. It was really inspiring to see someone who went through the same program that we’re doing now, who became so successful. It motivated me to keep going when I was feeling overwhelmed by exams. It was also an opportunity tp reflect on myself and see if I’m trying my best. She talked about how she struggled with English when she first came to York and I feel like everyone has something that they struggle with. It really made me feel better knowing that I’m not the only one and that things will get better. It was also a good opportunity to make connection. I think you guys did a very good job organizing this event!:)
I came to the event not really knowing what to expect, but I sure was glad I came. It was nice hearing the views of someone who has achieved so much in her career, and I have learned quite a significant amount. I especially like the point she made about the education system and wish more people shared a similar view and walked towards making science even in elementary school more appealing. The event was definitely worth it even though it was an online Skype call.
What really intrigued me was when Johanne described how leaders should not be forceful, but powerful and wise. I left her conference feeling just that. She is an inspiration to all women in the male dominated fields of science and engineering.
I thought the event was really helpful in getting students involved in decision making. Johanne was very lovely and patient. She shared her wisdom and vision with us. And that’s something money can’t buy.