Why Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet matters for corporate Canada

Alex Johnston, director of Catalyst Canada, on how the first Canadian cabinet with a 50-50 gender ratio sets the tone

Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walking on Parliament Hill with his recently appointed cabinet ministers

Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walking on Parliament Hill with his recently appointed cabinet ministers. (Justin Tang/CP)

This morning Justin Trudeau was sworn in as Prime Minister, along with the first cabinet in Canadian history to be split 50:50 between men and women. Alex Johnston—executive director of Catalyst Canada, which studies and advocates for women in corporate governance and business leadership roles—talks about why the move signals a shift that all of corporate Canada should pay attention to:

What sort of impact will the Trudeau government’s gender-balanced cabinet have on Canadian business leaders, most of whom have been reluctant to embrace the idea of setting quotas and targets for female representation?

I think it will have a very real impact. All of a sudden, people aren’t talking about incremental change any more. Choosing a cabinet like this is really setting a new norm.

I said the same thing when Katie Taylor was appointed head of RBC’s board. There’s no one single development that changes everything, but Katie’s appointment changed our perception of what a bank board chair could look like, and this will change people’s notions about cabinet in a similar way. Even just the visuals of it send a powerful message: People start recognizing what a group of people like that can look like.

So do you think Trudeau’s move will make the idea of targets more palatable?

I think it shows that if you’ve got an unbelievably talented caucus—and I have every reason to believe that this is a cabinet of very impressive people–there’s no reason not to use targets to choose from among them.

If you’re a business leader, there’s no part of your business that you would let grow organically. You set goals and targets, and you work toward them. You’re not going to get where you want to be if you don’t figure out where that is, and have a concrete destination in mind.

How do you respond to critics who say that hard-number targets reduce women to checkmarks in boxes?

The issue that critics like to trot out is “merit,” and I think merit is a very convenient safety blanket to defend the status quo—especially if your board looks the same as it did 30 years ago. There are always people who want to take the conversation down the merit road, but the focus should really be on the incredible number of qualified women out there.

There’s no question that the women who Justin Trudeau has appointed have great skills–Chrystia Freeland, Catherine McKenna, Carolyn Bennett; these are very capable people. The workforce has changed, the world has changed, and if you’re a business leader, your team has got to keep up.

Could it backfire though? Are critics watching for women to fail?

It’s certainly true that we scrutinize men and women differently, and we have different expectations of them. We promote women on the basis of what they’ve done already, and men on their promise or potential. A lot of these things will probably play out. And there will be people in this cabinet who will be wildly successful and people who will fail, but that’s not going to be a gender issue.

This is a huge milestone for women and it’s a huge milestone for the country. And I hope we can all recognize that.