Of all the departments in a financial services firm, the information technology ‘IT’ department is often reputed to be the ‘least welcoming’ to female professionals. For that reason, I was eager to connect with Johanne Duhaime, Executive Vice-President, Information Technology, at Desjardins Group, the dynamic, Quebec-based banking, investment and insurance cooperative.
As I learned in our chat, Johanne applied her cheery curiosity – and a healthy dose of pointed humor – to break the bias among ‘the guys in the computer room,’ and prove that IT is a great career for women.
Let curiosity curtail doubts
Johanne’s ascent in IT may surprise you, since she exudes the confidence of a business strategist with the ‘joie de vie’ (joy of life) to happily host a boisterous skating party. In fact, she quickly tells me that, “Just so you know, I’m not formally trained in IT, but I was always fascinated by technology.”
She explains that she began her career in retail banking but found herself volunteering for user acceptance testing shifts whenever technology rollouts were scheduled. “I was the nerd who raised my hand to come in at 3am to help out,” jokes Johanne, adding that she enjoyed querying the on-site tech people, who recognized her knack for systems. “After a while, the IT people said I should move to the technology side, so I crossed over, and I never looked back.”
Driven by her natural curiosity, Johanne raised her hand to try different IT specialties, from programming and analysis to architecture and governance. “I found my passion and I kept trying things I found interesting,” recounts Johanne. “This curiosity is important because we may think there is only one path forward, so we must be open to other possibilities. As women, we often overthink things and question ourselves, so instead, just be curious and try stuff out.”
Although Johanne admits that risk-taking doesn’t always go as planned, it usually leads somewhere better. She describes how disappointed she was when a much-anticipated job managing a call center was all about spread sheets and not as ‘techie’ as she hoped. “After a few months, I spoke to the team and admitted this wasn’t a role I enjoyed. By good fortune, they offered me another job that was purely IT.”
Similarly, Johanne recalls working for a firm where she and the Chief Information Officer “Just were not connecting.” Although her superior warned her that, “VPs don’t quit,” Johanne decided to leave the organization. “Soon after, I found a job with a much better fit, and I was named CIO a year later. It shows that women should not doubt themselves or assume that they are the one doing something wrong. If your inner voice says something is not right, you need to listen.”
Humor to handle hecklers
Johanne is also clear that, over a 35-year career in IT, there were bumps along the way, and she saw how women were not treated as equals. She vividly remembers being passed over for a promotion when she was on maternity leave: “I was next in line to become VP, but they didn’t even call to see if I was interested. They decided that, ‘She just had a baby, so she won’t have the drive.’ I hated that because, being a mother actually made me more organized and a better manager, with more empathy. That’s why I tell women to be courageous, and don’t be ashamed to voice your ambitions.”
Johanne definitely stood up for herself when the guys in the computer room tried to ‘mansplain’ technology issues: “I grew up with three brothers, so I learned early to speak up. However, I learned to do it in a humorous way, to show that person how ridiculous their comment is.”
For example, Johanne recollects visiting a male-dominated telecom outpost where a staffer said in a patronizing tone, “Look Mrs. Duhaime, this is a server.” In response, Johanne retorted, ‘I’m SO glad you showed me that since I’m a CIO and I’ve NEVER seen one before.’ “At this point, everyone laughed, and we began to really talk about the serious technology issue at hand,” says Johanne. She adds that frequently she will speak with an individual in private to clarify a comment: “Often, people don’t realize what they said, so I give them the benefit of the doubt and help them understand with tact why it is unacceptable.”
This patient, persistent approach has also helped Johanne’s employer bolster workplace inclusion. “At Desjardins, I’m very proud that we have gender parity on my senior management committee, five of 12 members of our Management Committee are women, and we have many women working in IT. Four years ago, our President set a goal for greater parity and the firm set diversity metrics, developed training for all management teams, and we review our progress regularly. It’s a living thing at Desjardins since it’s not enough to say it, you have to do it and measure it.”
Outside of the office, Johanne also advocates for women’s advancement, particularly by helping girls discover interests in IT careers. “As a mother of a teenage daughter, I’ve seen how the school system teaches kids to program video games. That’s something that doesn’t interest most girls, so I’m involved with providing feedback to differents partners our universities to change how they look at technology training, so it will be more interesting to women.”
And to help turn any ‘spark of interest’ into a fulfilling career, Johanne concludes brightly: “I’d encourage women to follow your curiosity and try different things. The destination should not be your only goal, because there’s a lot of learning in the journey too. Trying things is part of the process and you’ll discover great things along the way.”
More about Johanne Duhaime: As Executive Vice-President of Information Technology, Johanne Duhaime leads a team of 6,600 people who develop solutions and technological operations for Desjardins Group. Her drive to optimize processes and streamline work methods is only equalled by her desire to create dynamic teams focused on delivering value-added transformation projects. Johanne also sits on the board of directors of Aviso Wealth, one of Canada's largest independent wealth management firms. She holds an EMBA from Université du Québec à Montréal. She has more than 30 years of IT experience in major Quebec organizations. Her team was honoured in recent years by Réseau Action TI for its innovative projects and, in 2019, she was named the Chief Information Officer of the Year for the Public Sector by the Information Technology Association of Canada. Johanne gives back to the community, as shown by her involvement with the Canadian Red Cross as honorary co-chair of the Montreal fundraising campaign in 2021.