Dr Hélène Boisjoly

It was in 1981 that Dr. Boisjoly finished her residency in ophthalmology at the University of Sherbrooke. She later specialized in cornea research at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and the Schepens Eyes Research Institute, affiliated with Harvard University. A few years later, she received her master’s degree in public health from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. She became Head of the Department of Ophthalmology at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital and then continued her career by becoming the first scientific director of the Vision Health Research Network. In 2011, she became the first woman to hold the position of Dean of a faculty of medicine in Quebec, a position she still holds today at the University of Montreal. She will then assume the functions of President of the Association of Faculties of Medicine in Canada (AFMC). In 2018, Dr. Boisjoly became a member of the Order of Canada.

Dr. Boisjoly has agreed to give us her precious time to tell us about her experiences and share with us the highlights of her career. In this interview, we tried to highlight the influence of being a woman in her professional career while seeking precious advice for future generations of young women who want to become socially involved.

Given all of your implications, your impressive career and your position as Dean, how has being a woman influenced your career?

I have very often been the only woman around the table, so this made me aware of the diversity since I myself was in a minority for many years, although now we are starting to see more female Deans of medicine in Canada. Being a woman, although men too, brings the challenge of balancing work and family. So, since having to manage the different dimensions of being a woman, a mother, a researcher, a teacher, I think that this helped me to develop a sense of organization and management which probably helped me to become and act as Dean today.

What have been the biggest career challenges? How did you overcome them?

It’s probably quite common in women to have the challenge of believing in themselves, because women often feel like they have to do more to be really good. So I would say that the most difficult was to accept my destiny, it took me a few years to realize that I was a researcher and a doctor, and I have been Dean for almost 9 years, but there is only for 2 years that I accept this fact. So, a difficulty will have been to take more time than it would have taken to achieve my title, therefore to overcome the imposter syndrome, this form of humility that is often found in women. So what I wish for women is that this period lasts less for them.

What led you to achieve your title? Was there a significant event?

To see that we are successful, that we manage to do things as Dean, to have formed a good team, to have reconfigured basic sciences, to have made changes in terms of governance, and seeing the result of these actions, this leads me to take a different look at my achievements, it makes me proud, like when I was a researcher and that I had the opportunity to publish what I found. I look at young people like you, and find you great, much better than what I was, so I have no worries about the next generation, especially among girls who I find very impressive and much safer of them as women of my time which was very different from today.

What does it mean to you to be the first female Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in Montreal?

It has very often happened to me to be the first woman in certain areas in my life. I was the first ophthalmologist researcher, I was the first director of university ophthalmologist department in Canada, so I had different firsts, and it was a privilege each time. So it’s a great honor and a great privilege to be a Dean and head of a medical school, but it’s also a very big responsibility. Since I am the first woman, I feel a certain responsibility to succeed for myself, and also for those who will follow after me.

How do you think you have helped to change attitudes towards women’s leadership and how do you think you have helped the careers of other women scientists?

I’ve seen a huge number of students, be it ophthalmology, master’s, doctoral or research. I’ve never done positive discrimination. I always believed that I was no better than a man, but that I was as competent as him. For equal quality, I saw a lot of talent in women who distinguished themselves not only in medicine, but also in leadership.

What I’ve observed for 20-25 years is that for women, going through their forties means that there are many who give up on dreams. It is a difficult time, often couples review their sustainability in a context where there is a young career at stake with family life which includes all kinds of sources of stress. Unfortunately, I see a lot of women in their mid-forties who are going to make the decision to put aside some of their dreams to succeed in balancing their living environment. We see women at very high levels of the university hierarchy, but much less in departmental leadership positions. You become a department director between the ages of 45 and 50 and it is often a time when women have stopped developing their professional careers for the benefit of family and usual work. I believe that in our society, more experienced women have a mentoring role to do. Special attention must be paid to them.

I see several women who are doing very well, so I’m not worried about the future. Like other women and men – which is important to emphasize, because there are several men who believed in me and who supported me whether in my family or in my studies – I think I contributed by being a role model. A woman who “looks like a woman”, who has a certain family, it must be doable! So it’s by being a successful reference that I think I’ve helped lead people to do similar things.

During your studies in the United States, did you feel a difference concerning the place of women in the medical environment?

In Canada and Quebec in particular, women are much more independent and have a more equal role compared to men. You can just see it with the last name. In Quebec, women have kept their last names for several decades, but in the United States, this is not the case. Maternity leave also plays an important role in creating an environment that promotes equality in Canada. In terms of equality, we compare ourselves much more to the Scandinavian countries.

Do you have current projects or future project ideas?

I have a background in public health and in recent years, as Dean, I have become increasingly involved in sustainable and global health. I have projects on eco-health and life balance. The goal is to promote health by reducing the number of procedures and prescriptions worldwide.

Finally, what advice do you want to give to future generations of women who want to be socially involved?

I encourage young people to be very dedicated to what they are doing in the present moment. Yes, you have to have certain predefined ambitions, but there are so many things that can happen in life that when you thought you were going towards a certain horizon, it was rather the sum of the stages and successes that lead you to excel. You have to listen to your little inner voice. Often, we are offered several implications and it is this little inner voice that we must listen to. It is with her that we feel that a type of work or environment does not suit us. It is okay to make a mistake, what is serious is to persevere in the mistake when we recognize it. You have to be yourself. Each person has their personal characteristics. It’s important to be authentic.

In this interview, Dr. Boisjoly advocates a life balance that allows professional fulfillment and the realization of her dreams. It reminds us that we should never forget them in our lifetime. We will have to listen to ourselves and take as a model the strong women of today to become those of tomorrow.