Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Women as Professional Soldiers


BY:  Drs. Stéfanie von Hlatky and Christian Leuprecht

On 30 April 2015, the government released the External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Force, known as the Deschamps Report. This review, named after its external authority, former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, presented some challenging findings for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Acknowledging that sexual misconduct is not unique to the CAF, the Report emphasizes its endemic nature within the military, concluding “that there is an underlying sexualized culture in the CAF that is hostile to women and LGTBQ [Lesbian, Gay, Transsexual, Bisexual, and Queer] members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.”1 Indeed, the external review was commissioned by then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Thomas Lawson, after victims of sexual harassment made their stories public as part of journalistic investigations featured in the Canadian magazines Maclean’s and L’Actualité. 

This was not the first sex scandal for the CAF. The military went through a similar ordeal in 1998, when incidents of sexual harassment made the news and caused public outrage. Why has the CAF been so complacent? How might the Department of National Defence focus its efforts post-Deschamps? Can Canada’s action plan restore the excellent reputation it achieved when it was among the first countries to remove all barriers to women across military trades? In response to these questions, we highlight the key factors at the domestic and international levels to understand the CAF experience with gender integration. We conclude by offering some modest suggestions. 

Women in the Military: Arguments for Greater Integration 

The integration of women in the armed forces has proven controversial, especially in the combat arms (infantry, armoured reconnaissance, artillery, engineers). There are at least three good reasons for their inclusion: institutional legitimacy in a democratic society; the functional imperative; and recruitment. 

First, the citizen-soldier ideal in democratic societies holds that military organizational culture should be in line with the expectations of Canadian society and the government: If women face no professional restrictions in other fields, the military should follow suit. A CAF that is broadly representative of Canadian society is likely to be more closely aligned with that society, which translates into greater support from taxpayers who ultimately float the armed forces and its mission. Gender diversity, then, is a proxy litmus test of civilmilitary relations: How proactive is the institution as opposed to diversifying largely in response to external pressure, such as legislative change and parajudicial adjudication? 

Second, there is a case to be made for operational effectiveness and mission success. Recent military experiences in Kosovo and Afghanistan confirm that including female teams in combat units is key to fulfilling mission objectives. For cultural reasons, reaching deep into communities and including women in political activities could not have been achieved without the presence of female soldiers. Having a man search a woman at a checkpoint would be an inconceivable contravention of cultural norms in these societies. Institutional diversity also offers operational advantages by increasing the skillsets required in postmodern society and warfare.2 Hybrid wars of the future are likely to fuel demand for more women to fulfill some of these essential military tasks. However utilitarian, such instrumental arguments make a strategic case for greater integration of women, along with minorities and other underrepresented Designated Group Members (DGMs), within the CAF.

 Finally, there is the recruitment argument. Broadening the military’s applicant pool by removing barriers to certain trades will boost recruitment efforts. More applicants mean greater competition, which should result in more qualified recruits overall. Over the course of two world wars and the Cold War, the military gradually removed restrictions on the service of women until a decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) in 1989 opened up all ranks and trades to women (except for submarine service, which took until 2000). Nondiscrimination legislation aside, Canada’s 1995 Employment Equity Act (EEA) actually requires federal institutions to be proactive about remedying disadvantage and under representation among DGMs: women, visible minorities, Aboriginal peoples, and persons with disabilities.

After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate exemptions to the EEA, the CAF was successful in delaying the lifting of restriction until 2002. The EEA has since resulted in the Canadian Armed Forces Employment Equity Relations, which, along with the CHRT decision, prompted the CAF to develop a methodology to establish annual recruiting targets. Still, the recruitment targets for the CAF, when compared to other security organizations, are not overly ambitious – so much so that the CAF recently altered the methodology so as to ensure that recruitment targets would not escalate. The target for women is 25.1 percent, compared to the RCMP’s target of 30 percent. Yet, the CAF falls well short of this and other DGM targets: in 2015 women make up 17 percent of officers and 13.4 percent of non-commissioned members of the Regular Force, for a total of about 14.3 percent (16.6 percent in the Reserves, for a CAF total of 15 percent). 

The delta between already conservative employment equity representation targets and actual representation rates suggest that there is room for the CAF to aim higher and do more. However, that arguably runs counter to deeply engrained premises of force cohesion and a tight institutional culture that values homogeneity and conformity. Yet, a tightening labour market due to population aging is raising the specter of stiffer competition for talent. The CAF’s functional imperative thus hinges on it becoming an employer of choice for all Canadians. 

A CAF that fails to accommodate by drawing more extensively on a more diverse recruit pool under conditions of population aging and a tightening labour market may either end up having to lower standards of recruitment – if it tries to recruit from the same yet shrinking cohort on which it has conventionally drawn – or shrinking the size of the force if it cannot find the requisite quality of recruit within its conventional yet shrinking recruit pool, neither of which are desirable. As the CAF contemplates more ambitious change, the post-Deschamps taskforce, which is mandated with implementing the core recommendations, has been looking internationally for best practices.

Benchmarking: What Are Canada’s Allies Doing?

Canada was among the first NATO allies to remove almost all professional barriers to women subsequent to the CHRT decision in 1989. Today, the CAF is actually more representative of society on a per capita basis than most NATO allies, save Hungary (20.3 percent), the United States (18 percent) and Latvia (16.5 percent), which all have more female uniformed members of their armed forces. However, allied data may not be readily comparable to Canada due to policy differentials: some countries have gender segregated roles that may affect female representation while denying men access to “feminized” occupational roles. 

The Alliance has been collecting data from each of its 28 member states through a questionnaire, the Annual National Reports to the NATO International Military Staff Office of the Gender Adviser. NATO recently enhanced data collection from its member states in the hopes of generating best practices for the Alliance on gender integration in the armed forces of NATO members.3 Comparing national legislation and policies, human resources trends, how gender is integrated in military operations, as well as sexual misconduct and harassment, NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Program – collaborating with external stakeholders and experts – concluded: (1) professional restrictions still exist for women in the  military in seven NATO member states, though all of them allow women to join the national armed forces; (2) about half of NATO’s member states support women’s integration in the military through targeted efforts by the ministry of defence; (3) over three quarters of NATO states have incorporated gender training as part of operational or pre-deployment training; (4) most if not all of NATO’s member states face significant challenges when it comes to addressing incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment.  

A non-NATO ally, Australia, has been at the forefront of establishing best practices. In 2009, the Australian Defence Force took on ambitious reforms called Pathway for Change that aimed to transform the national military culture to eliminate predatory behaviour and establish a new professional standard that is safe for all service members, regardless of gender or background. Canada has a similar opportunity with the Deschamps report and the CAF Action Plan on Inappropriate Sexual Behaviour. With Lieutenant-General Christine Whitecross at the helm of implementing this Action Plan, momentum is building to embark on an effort similar to Australia’s.  

Key to this effort will be strong ownership of the process, from the military’s top brass and all the way down, and to make the link explicit between the need for organizational culture to make policies on diversity stick and effectively change the CAF’s institutional culture. If the first few speeches by Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, are any indication, he appears committed to the kind of transformative leadership that worked in the Australian Army, under their Chief, (now retired) LieutenantGeneral David Morrison.  


Within the CAF, the removal of formal restrictions to service has met with some success at improving recruitment trends outside of the military’s traditional recruit pool of rural white heterosexual males. However, these incremental improvements have been spawned by outside pressure and parajudicial intervention, be it legislative or policy change, as with the 1992 Douglas case on homosexuals in the military. By and large, then, the military has been reactionary on matters of diversity. Moreover, improvements in representation are not keeping pace with the changing demographics of Canadian society. That is, inroads on improving the recruitment and representation of women remain tepid, and the delta of diversity in Canadian society relative to representation in the CAF is actually growing. As the 1989 CHRT, multiple lawsuits, and Justice Deschamp’s 2015 report suggest, the military leadership had hitherto underestimated the extent of the equality gap and the external societal, political, and legal expectations to remedy it. 

As compared to the 1990s, the CAF no longer has retention issues among DGMs: women who opt to serve appear to be no less dis/satisfied than men. And for the first time in the history of the Royal Military College of Canada, four of the top five cadets are women. So, there is some evidence to suggest that the CAF is on a positive trajectory. Nor is there robust comparative evidence that issue of harassment and sexual assault are any more pervasive in the CAF than in other workplaces or sectors of Canadian society. However, the CAF appears to have underestimated the extent to which Canadians have higher expectations of civil servants in general, and those who serve in uniform in particular.  

Rather than lagging behind, the federal government and the CAF – as the country’s single largest institutional employer – should model employment equity to the rest of Canadian society as well as our allies. But becoming an employer of choice for all Canadians will require more than the 10 recommendations outlined in the Deschamps report. First, past precedent of the CAF’s handling of gender issues suggests that those well-intentioned efforts are bound to fizzle unless federal politicians of all political stripes commit to holding the CAF and it leadership’s feet to the fire. Second, the CAF’s institutional culture will prove difficult to change unless and until there is an unwavering commitment to improving the representation of DGMs. The CAF habitually justifies under representation by observing that apparently “they don’t want to join.” If that is, indeed, the case – we are not necessarily convinced that “they” do not want to join – then perhaps the operative question to ask is: Why would they not want to join? Finally, the CAF will fundamentally have to reassess its approach to civil-military relations. Old sergeants like to say: “We’re here to defend democracy, not to practice it.” But Canadians have been clear: the CAF’s unique mission notwithstanding, they expect the CAF to reconcile the defence of democracy with democracy’s fundamental norms and values. 

Dr. Stéfanie von Hlatky is an assistant professor of political studies at Queen’s University and the Director of the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy (CIDP). Her new book, The Future of US Extended Deterrence (coedited with Andreas Wenger) analyzes US security commitments to NATO (Georgetown University Press, 2015). 

Dr. Christian Leuprecht is Professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada and Senior Fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute. He is crossappointed to the Department of Political Studies and the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University where he is also a fellow of the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations and the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy


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