Gender Inclusivity in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) – The Role of the Chief Petty Officer Second Class/Master Warrant Officer

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By CPO2 Michelle Seaman
Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP)
December 24, 2021


In August 2020, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) announced the adoption of gender neutral rank designations to reflect “the modern, progressive Service that is the RCN today”Footnote 1. What should have been a watershed moment in the Navy’s diversity and inclusion efforts was marred by hateful on-line comments that prompted then Commander of the Navy to remark, that the conversation around rank provided “greater insight into who we are, including the sober reality that we all need to do more, individually and collectively.”Footnote 2 This is just one example of how the 2016 CAF Diversity Strategy and Action PlanFootnote 3 has not gone far enough to eliminate systemic barriers and underlying prejudice that hinder the CAF’s progress towards a culture that embraces gender diversity and inclusivity.Footnote 4 The role of the Chief Petty Officer Second Class (CPO2)/Master Warrant Officer (MWO) in leading organizational change is more important now than ever given recent events that have shaken the trust in highest echelons of leadership. Examination of this issue will look at some of the reasons why the CAF has not been successful in creating an environment of diversity and inclusion, recommendations for shared and individual actions, and the role that CPO2/MWO can play in leading the change needed to create a gender inclusive culture.

To understand the role of CAF leaders in progressing culture change the issue of gender diversity and inclusion must be considered within the framework that guides behaviours necessary for leadership and organizational effectiveness.

The Context

To date the launch of the 2016 CAF Diversity Strategy and Action Plan has not created a culture that embraces diversity and inclusion because the intent signalled in the strategy has not been backed up by individual and collective actions that align with the Canadian Forces (CF) Effectiveness Framework of Member Well-being and Commitment and Military EthosFootnote 5Footnote 6.

The CAF’s diversity talk must be backed up by actions that will result in implementation of systemic changes to policies, procedures, trainingFootnote 7 and development processes otherwise it perpetuates an exclusive rather than inclusive culture which negatively impacts Member Well-being and CommitmentFootnote 8Footnote 9.

At the institutional level, leaders are responsible to act in ways that honour the social contract; maintain QOL and member-support systems.Footnote 10 By championing concrete actions, such as the elimination of gender binary only options and stereotypical depictions from all administrative and tactical documents leaders can positively influence the organization meet its obligation to the social contract by providing “respectful treatment during service”Footnote 11 for all CAF members.

At the centre of the CF Effectiveness Framework Military Ethos guides conduct in line with ethical principals and military values.Footnote 12 For the CAF to embody a truly inclusive culture, senior leaders must lead both, individuals to ensure a climate of respect for individual rights and diversity,Footnote 13 and the institution to establish an ethical cultureFootnote 14 by aligning their own behaviour with these values. This will take courage and involve speaking up about the behaviours of others (intentional or otherwise), identifying organizational barriers to inclusion and creating opportunities to acknowledge, address and understand unconscious bias and experiences that have shaped these perspectives in themselves and others.Footnote 15

The Environment

Cultural change is a difficult endeavour. To break the cycle of continuing to repeat approaches that garner the same unsuccessful result, an understanding of the CAF operating environment is key. A visual representation of the complex interrelationships of CAF systems impacting and impacted by the issue of Gender Inclusivity is depicted in the form of the Mind Map (see Appendix A - Mind Map - Gender Inclusivity in the CAF). The following section describes the Mind Map which illustrates a systems approach to analyzing the issue of Gender Inclusivity in the CAF.

As a “system of systems”Footnote 16, the CAF operates in an environment with external inputs that will influence gender inclusivity, including: public perception that the CAF is a trusted ethical organization and is reflective of Canada’s diversity (see upper left and right corners of the mind map). At the centre of the map is the issue of Gender Inclusivity (outlined in dark blue). Five primary CAF systems, Organizational Culture, CAF Diversity Strategy and Action Plan, Military Personnel Systems, Learning Environment and Leadership (outlined in green); their sub-systems (outlined in light blue) and the interrelations between them radiate from the central issue.Footnote 17

In 2016, the CAF Diversity Strategy and Action Plan was launched to create an Organizational Culture “that embraces diversity and inclusion”Footnote 18. Five years on multiple examples highlight that members continue to act contrary to the DND and CF Code of Values and Ethics.Footnote 19 If “core values rooted deeply within the people who make up an organization are the essences of its organizational culture”Footnote 20 then to achieve a truly diverse and inclusive culture, steps must be taken to align member behaviour with the ethical principle of respect and dignity of all persons and the values of courage, integrity and loyalty. This instills the trust not only of the Canadian public in the CAF but also the trust of CAF members in the institution.

The CAF Diversity Strategy and Action Plan has lacked effective implementation and therefore has not resulted in the organizational culture envisioned. Despite communication and initiatives launched, there has been little in the way of tailored communications and action plans for units, i.e. guidance for structural changes (gender neutral washrooms). Policies, manuals and forms have not been updated and continue to reflect gender binary language to the exclusion of gender diverse members. An evaluation conducted in 2020, found that “more recent information and data are needed to report on the current state of diversity inclusion within DND and the CAF.”Footnote 21 These findings should trigger a review and adjustments, if required, to the implementation plan.

Implementation of the CAF Diversity Strategy and Action Plan should include a review of Military Personnel Systems, i.e. such as recruiting and retention, personnel administration and training using Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+) with a focus on diverse gender identities to recognize and address systemic discrimination. For example, intake and exit interviews can provide information that reinforce feedback loops essential to a learning environment. This information can be used to identify gaps in training, awareness or other performance management mechanisms that can enhance inclusion which may, in turn, increase recruitment and retention of diverse members.

A Learning Environment ensures “there is the provision of continuous feedback and knowledge into planning and implementation”Footnote 22 of key systems that will influence Gender Inclusivity. Conventional and innovative approaches to sharing knowledge can be used including: Training courses, e.g. Positive Space Ambassador Course, scenario based Ethics training, GBA+; Education and Awareness, e.g. CAF Competencies, allyship principles; and Diverse Gender Identity Awareness sessions. The CFPAS process provides feedback on behaviours and the opportunity to integrate gender inclusive specific learning into action plans.

Leadership at all levels support a learning environment by making a visible commitment to personal learning and developmentFootnote 23. Leaders must do the difficult work of self-reflection, to uncover unconscious bias, acknowledge mistakes and make changes required. As leaders of individuals and of the institution, CPO2/MWOs provide feedback to followers, peers and superiors and take accountability for their own actions which motivates and guides behavioursFootnote 24 that are aligned with CF Ethics and Values and support a diverse and inclusive organizational culture.

Analyzing the Problems

For the purpose of this paper, three main problems have been identified that have prevented the the 2016 CAF Diversity Strategy and Action Plan from achieving the change necessary to create an organizational culture “that embraces diversity and inclusion”Footnote 25.

First, the 2020 Evaluation of Diversity and Inclusion report found that a “lack of understanding of what diversity and inclusion entails (e.g., definitions and outcomes) has resulted in a lack of clear and consistent direction and guidance from senior management on how to progress on this agenda.”Footnote 26 The failure to achieve the intended cultural change is linked to ineffective communication during strategy implementation. This highlights a failure to recognize the complexity of cultural change and the importance of understanding that for members “to shift attitudes and internalize messages, (leaders) need to use influence and persuasion.”Footnote 27 The absence of clear messaging contributed to uncertainty of what actions and outcomes were expected.Footnote 28 Lack of trust in senior leadership resulting from a history of inaction on incidents of sexual misconduct put the reliability and trustworthiness of those delivering the message into question.Footnote 29 Appropriate attention was not paid to both the tailoring of the message and the appropriate means of delivering it to the specific audiences in the CAF.Footnote 30 The impact of this oversight cannot be overstated given the fact that even with a well crafted message “the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and pre-existing beliefs.”Footnote 31 As a result, understanding of the cultural change strategy was left to chance and leaders missed the opportunity to influence the communication of this vital initiative for “optimal impact and understanding.”Footnote 32

Secondly, the 2015 External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces found the culture “hostile to women and LGTBQ members”, noted the disconnect “between the high professional standards established by the CAF’s policies on inappropriate sexual conduct….and the reality experienced by many members”, and that cultural change was paramount.Footnote 33 As recent headlines concerning inaction regarding allegations of sexual misconduct at the highest levels of the military, show the 2016 CAF Diversity Strategy and Action Plan has been ineffectual because the concept of military professionalism has not evolved to keep pace with the change required. “Professions are socially constructed concepts (Ewles et al. 2017; Rudvin 2007) and defined by the social biases of the dominant culture (Davies 1996)”Footnote 34 which, in the case of the military, is primarily male-dominated.Footnote 35 Systems and policies reflective of this dominant culture remain despite efforts to reform, such as applying GBA+ analysis to change activities. As pointed out in the Deschamps Report, “There is also a strong perception that senior NCOs are responsible for imposing a culture where no one speaks up.”Footnote 36 Whether through willful disregard, habituated acceptance or survival, officers and senior Non-Commissioned Members (NCMs) who do not exemplifying the core ethic of respect for all persons have not fulfilled their responsibilities as stewards of the profession to ensure it continues to evolve to meet the expectations of Canadians.Footnote 37

A third reason why the CAF Diversity and Inclusion strategy has not achieved the envisioned cultural change is that systems thinking was not applied to the implementation of this initiative. Senior leadership ability to “optimize the capacity for systems thinking is linked to the broader culture changing goals.”Footnote 38 Had a learning environment been in place with established processes and feedback mechanisms to ensure lessons learned informed ongoing practices and organizational learningFootnote 39 the lack of clearly defined measures, expected outcomes and departmental plans that stalled progress on gender inclusivity may have been identified sooner than the 2020 Evaluation of Diversity and Inclusion.Footnote 40 The lack of progress on strategic outcomes is evident from examples that range from; administrative forms that continue to reflect gender binary (male and female) only options; to micro-aggressions in the form of greetings that exclude gender diverse individuals; to outright expressions of hateful attitudes. The disconnect between the intent of the strategy, based on the ethical principle of respect for all persons, and day-to-day examples of exclusion was not addressed or mitigated due to the absence of a learning environment where leaders “commit to personal learning”Footnote 41 and conduct critical analyses “to determine how the “taken for granted” cultural beliefs, assumptions and associated practices influence CF systems, system relationships and the nature of system outputs.”Footnote 42

Common to each of these problems is that actions taken by the institution and individuals are not aligned with the principle of respect and dignity for all people. A key to reason for this disconnect can be linked to the priority of competencies identified in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Competency Dictionary.Footnote 43 The CAF Competency Dictionary presents competencies ‘in order from most to least important based on the ranking scores averaged across all officers and NCMs.”Footnote 44 Tellingly, Commitment to Military Ethos ranks 4th behind Communication, Credibility and Influence and TeamworkFootnote 45 pointing to the fact that the CAF has veered off course and that Military Ethos no longer guides conduct in line with ethical principals and military values as the foundation from which all other competency behaviours flow.


We know from past reports such as the 2015 Deschamps ReportFootnote 47 into sexual misconduct, the 2020 Evaluation of the CAF Diversity Strategy and ongoing scandals involving the highest levels of leadership that the organization continues to repeat past mistakes which is eroding the trust of our members and public in the organization. We can no longer wait for a CAF lead approach to collective action. The time to take responsibility for personal actions that can affect change is now.

As leaders of people and the institution, CPO2/MWOs are not only well positioned but have a duty to take individual action in leading cultural change. The recommendations that follow are not exhaustive. They are intended to identify specific actions that the CPO2/MWO cadre can commit to in order to begin to address the main problems identified within the scope of this paper and influence change.

These specific recommendations are based on the notion that actions are guided by the “the concept of military ethosFootnote 48 (which) is founded upon respect for the values protected by the Canadian Charter of Human RightsFootnote 49 (the Charter), including the right to dignity and security of the person”Footnote 50 and is the overarching competency from which all other CAF competencies must follow.Footnote 51 In addition the notion of supportive allyship is introduced as an important new competency to support leaders.

According the Harvard Business ReviewFootnote 52 “allies endeavour to drive systemic improvements to workplace policies, practices and cultures” and this change “starts with individual leaders taking responsibility for our own actions and behaviours.

The intent signalled in the Diversity Strategy has not been backed up by individual and collective actions that are needed to achieve the cultural change necessary which is why the CAF continues to fall into the performative allyship which involves professing support for the cause of diversity without any tangible work required for supportive allyship which is what is need to drive change.

Recommendation Issue 1

The absence of effective communication led to the failure to implement the Diversity Strategy due to confusion as to what “diversity and inclusion entails (e.g., definitions and outcomes) resulting in a lack of clear and consistent direction and guidance from senior management on how to progress on this agenda.”Footnote 53

It is recommended that CPO2/MWOs engage senior leadership at their unit to establish Diversity and Inclusion Advisor Teams (DICAT) that report directly to the Commanding Officer. As an example, the Naval Reserve (NAVRES) has recently established new Diversity and Inclusion Commander’s Advisor Teams (DICATs)Footnote 54 to influence action at the unit level. DICATS will establish: effective communication through common understanding of terms, expected outcomes; feedback mechanisms to impact orders, procedures and training that need to be created/adapted to reflect unique diversity of the unit; provide an opportunity for diverse voices to be heard and influence change. CPO2/MWOs are also encouraged to support and participate (when appropriate) in informal discussions such as Town Halls or Fireside Chats that can vary by size, community of interest and rank to ensure the voices of all ranks and perspectives are heard. To monitor the effectiveness of these activities a climate survey of the entire unit can be used to gauge the understanding of and feelings related to diversity and inclusion to establish a baseline. Follow up surveys could be conducted every 12 months to gauge progress.

Recommendation Issue 2

Military professionalism has failed to evolve and reflect diversity therefore systems and policies reflective of the male dominant culture remain despite efforts to reform, such as applying GBA+ analysis to change activities.

As stewards of the profession it is recommended that CPO2/MWO look within their sphere of influence for changes that can be made or advocated for in systems or the application of policies that can better reflect inclusion principles. Examples of possible actions include, but are not limited to: identifying personal pronouns when introducing one’s self; reviewing training materials for gender binary language or stereotypes; facilitating the issue of both male and female uniforms to gender diverse individuals; encourage education and awareness opportunities beyond conventional training approaches to support learningFootnote 55 such as informal discussions, expert lecturers, interactive and scenario-based learning experiences; and mentoring supervisors on interpretation of dress regulations in light of diverse gender identities.Footnote 56 Professional networks should be leveraged to optimize knowledge sharing across the CAF including environments and components (reserve and regular force units).Footnote 57 Solicit feedback regularly from unit members at all levels, providing the opportunities for the submission of anonymous comments, regarding the positive or negative impact of these activities.

Recommendation Issue 3

The CAF Diversity Strategy and Action Plan has not achieved the envisioned cultural change because systems thinking was not applied to create a learning environment in order to successfully achieve this outcome. This recommendation calls on CPO2/MWOs to make a personal commitment to learning to ensure alignment of personal actions with the core values and the principles of supportive allyship. The CPO2/MWO cadre is likely to be less diverse and as a result naturally have ingrained bias and prejudice based on their lived experience and length of service, many having joined before gender diversity and inclusion were priorities of the CAF. It is because of this that this group has the potential to significantly influence change by committing to “personal learning”Footnote 58 and to conduct critical analyses “to determine how the “taken for granted” cultural beliefs, assumptions impact their actions. By leading from the front CPO2/MWOs can be a catalyst for changeFootnote 59 and set the example for superiors, peers and followers. This will be difficult and uncomfortable because it will require putting oneself in the position of vulnerability. But is important that CPO2/MWOs be willing to demonstrate this courage by: educating themselves on gender issues and listening to experiences and voices of those with lived experiences; being prepared to accept feedback that may be difficult to hear with humility; and acknowledging that with this awareness comes the commitment to do better. CPO2/MWOs must also be prepared to provide respectful but frank feedback to peers/followers and superiors. CPO2/MWOs can measure their own progress through implicit bias testing before and throughout their learning journey.Footnote 60


The 2015 Deschamps Report stated, “the CAF needs to engage in broad-based cultural reform to change the underlying norms of conduct that are giving rise to pervasive low-level harassment, a hostile environment for women and LGTBQ members”.Footnote 61 The CAF has not made discernable progress towards this goal despite the launch of the 2016 CAF Diversity and Action Plan. Recent events continue to erode trust and confidence of both the public and members of the CAF that cultural change can be achieved. While the CAF struggles to improve diversity and inclusion efforts CPO2s/MWOs have an important role to play to facilitate change now. As leaders of both individuals and the institution the CPO2/MWO cadre has a duty to become directly engaged in and role model cultural reform.Footnote 62

Appendix A - Mind Map - Gender Inclusivity in the CAF

Mind Map - Gender Inclusivity in the CAF

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