The Retention and Recruitment of Women in the Canadian Armed Forces

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Par pm1 Leavitt
Programme de nominations supérieures (PNS)
5 septembre, 2022

Present and accounted for, women have been, and continue to be an integral part of the proud history of Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) since the 18th Century. Even though women are well established into the fiber of the CAF, it is evident that there is an issue with the retention of serving females or the recruitment of new women into the CAF, or possibly both. The apparent lack of women in the Forces and the need to augment female recruitment is clearly identified in the Strong, Secure, and Engaged (SSE), the 2017 Liberal Defence Policy. SSE ascertains that the CAF should represent Canada’s diverse population, therefore the CAF “will increase the proportion of women in the military by 1 percent annually, to move from the current 15 percent to 25 percent representation by 2026. (Minister of National Defence, 2017)

The direction of SSE has brought to the forefront the question of why there are fewer women represented in the CAF as compared to the Canadian population. In order to answer this question, I will explore the following topics. The first being, the history of women in the CAF and what roles they have adopted - did they have the same opportunities as their male counterparts as it pertains to career selection and advancement? I will then explore the CAF culture and identity, is the CAF of today diverse and inclusive? The final topic I will explore is the issue of retention and recruitment of women in the Forces, are there contributing factors that are hamper reaching the goal of 25 percent women in the CAF? From the direction identified in the SSE and based on the information gained through my research, I will address the following question “What role and influence does an SA CPO1/CWO have through the Culture Change Initiative (Minister of National Defence, 2017) with the objective to make the CAF an employer of choice, ultimately reaching the target ratio of 1:4 females to males by 2026?

In order to create and implement positive change for our military, the CAF must foster a diverse, inclusive environment through preservation of constructive attributes, while implementing necessary revisions to become aligned with the desired cultural space, improving the organization as a whole. More specifically, to adequately address the recruitment and retention of women in the Profession of Arms, it is important to reflect on the successes and failures of the past.

Women have had a long-standing history in the CAF which began in 1885, in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It began with a group nurses who provided field care for deployed troops over a period of approximately one month, during that time they were distinguished for their work by receiving “twelve campaign medals for their service in the North-West Rebellion in 1885” (Government of Canada, 2021). Women continued their proud service throughout the 19th century deploying as the first Canadian Nursing division to South Africa as a part of the Boer War. These women sailed together with the first contingent of Canadian Soldiers to South Africa (Veterans Affairs Canada, 2017). In the early days, women’s roles where limited to Nursing, but expanding significantly upon the onset of WW1. Women at home in the absence of the men who were sent to Europe “supported the war effort by volunteering their time to make and package things like pillows, sheets, socks and scarves to send to soldiers overseas.” (Veterans Affairs Canada, 2017). Further to this expanding role, it was in this period that women had to take control of the labor forces. It is estimated that “Over 30,000 women worked outside of the home in munitions factories, offices and in the countryside on their family farms due to the shortage of male workers” (Veterans Affairs Canada, 2017).

It was not until the Second World War, when women shifted from their original roles they were cast into, as well the CAF moved from a male centric membership creating approximately 50,000 women positions across the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), Canadian Arm (CA), and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). With the creation of these new positions, “On July 2, 1941, the Canadian Army created the Canadian Women's Army Corps, and some 21,000 women served as CWAC's, On August 13, 1941, the Royal Canadian Air Force established a Women's Division (WD) and some 17,000 Women served in the RCAF(WD), and On July 21, 1942, The Royal Canadian Navy created the WRENS (Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service), and some 7,000 women served” (Veterans Affairs Canada, 2017). It was during this era that the tasks in which women where occupying changed from their previous roles of nursing to occupations which continue to exist in the CAF today, such as administrators, cooks, and mechanics just to call attention to a few.

The contributions of women and the roles which they occupy have evolved from the 1940’s to today, this evolution has seen women in the Combat Arms, Service in HMC Ships including Submarines, Aircraft, and all occupations in the CAF alongside their male counter parts. Over the past 20 Years, women have successfully navigated through their respective career paths in alignment with their male colleagues and have reached the highest General and Flag Officer positions, including the current Vice Chief of Defense Staff, LGen Frances Allen. Female Non-Commissioned Members (NCMs) have also shared in the same success as female officers, reaching the highest levels of Institutional Command, including the appointment as the Vice Chief of Defense Staff Chief Warrant Officer, a Senior Appointment. It is clear that some women have been able to reach the same level of success as their male counterparts, however their success is only a fraction in comparison to men.

Women currently represent approximately 15 percent of the total CAF membership, which is alarming as the CAF is designed to reflect the Canadian population, in which women make up approximately 50.4 percent in a report by Statistics Canada (Statistics Canada, 2016). Over the passage of time, women have advanced from single roles as nurses to employment in every military occupation, with over 100 career choices women are employed in every level of the organization.

Therefore, it is reasonable to surmise that achieving the goal to increase the percentage of women in the CAF from 15 to 25 percent by 2026 would not be hampered by the positions and opportunities currently available to women.

This leads me to my second question posed, is the CAF culture and identity truly diverse and inclusive? It is hard to assess the CAF’s exact culture and identity since its inception, however, following the same principles which indicate that the CAF is a reflection of Canadian society, I believe until just recently, the CAF was not an organization which provided diverse and inclusive culture. From my experience in the 1990s and early 2000s, I can personally relate to this statement. Early in my career, it was evident that the RCN and Her Majesty’s Canadian (HMC) Ships were a male dominated environment, strife with customs and traditions which went back the days of Lord Nelson and the Royal Navy (RN). For example, any new sailor joining a ship would experience a hazing on the seventh day at sea, and it was only upon completion of the hazing, with no regard for the members’ sex, sexual orientation, or beliefs and values was the member considered to be a sailor. From my experiences, although an actual physical assault rarely occurred, the main purpose of this initiation was to intimidate and insinuate that something was going to happen to you on the seventh day at sea.

This was a fear that was instilled into almost every sailor who was posted onboard an HMC Ship. This is only one naval example of how the CAF was not an inclusive and diverse culture. Although this is only one example based upon my personal experience, the Canadian Army (CA) and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had very similar inappropriate and harmful practices. Although many inappropriate behaviors still exist, behaviours have changed drastically over my career and most of the harmful traditions and the pronounced male warrior cultures have been eliminated.

The attention and effort which have been introduced to abolish the inappropriate behavior and enact culture change during the last five to ten years is commendable. Although there is still much work to be done, with many issues yet to be addressed, I believe the CAF/DND has made significant improvements. The organization has focused efforts in the right direction towards a CAF culture and identity which is inclusive and diverse for not only for women, but all minorities, including LTBGTQ2 and marginalized peoples. Moving forward, as described in SSE, “the CAF is committed to gender equality, and providing a work environment where women are welcomed, supported and respected” (Minister of National Defence, 2017). Leverage initiatives and directives such as the SSE to provide the CAF leadership with clear direction and guidance on the expected behavior of CAF members and the promotion of diversity and inclusion as a core institutional value across the Defence Team. Possibly the most unequivocal was the implementation of Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GPA+).

The GPA+ is an “analytical tool used to assess the potential impacts of policies, programs, services, and other initiatives on diverse groups of people, taking into account gender and a range of other identity factors” (Minister of National Defence, 2017).

Further identified in the SSE is the means in which inappropriate behaviors, sexual misconducts, and sexual assaults are to be investigated with an enhanced investigation process. The raisons d'être for this initiative is “effectively investigating and prosecuting these serious crimes and will continue to explore further initiatives to enhance its ability to support victims and survivors and bring perpetrators to justice” (Minister of National Defence, 2017). The investigation and prosecution of such offences must be systematically reinforced and applied consistently across all levels of the Defence Team (DT).

The culture of the CAF has changed significantly over the past 20 years with much work still to be done. The direction, tools, and guidance which have been created to enact culture change must be delivered on values and ethos to ensure the advancements do not regress. These initiatives combined with the CAF’s acknowledgement that harmful and inappropriate behavior is not acceptable, will enable the CAF to understand what challenges we are faced with, and to create credible processes to ensure that the cultural shift evolves and is not forgotten over time. In this challenging environment, the CAF of today is a much more dynamic, diverse, and inclusive military that is listening and working to build trust through actions and words.

Based on the previous two topics, I believe that the same opportunities exist for women to serve in the CAF along their male counterparts, and the cultural shift that is required to make the CAF an inclusive and diverse, well-functioning organization is happening. If this is the case then why is it still a problem to grow the numbers of women in the CAF?

Which leads me to my last topic, in order to achieve the goal of female membership in the CAF of 25 percent, it will be imperative to focus on the retention of the women currently serving and the recruitment of new women. However, striving to increase female recruitment as well cultivate retention strategies has proven to be extremely challenging.

Difficult to identify the one underlying reason why the retention and recruitment of females in the CAF continues to be a problem, I believe one major factor is due, in part, to the findings of The Deschamps Report in April 2015. External cultural shifts and movements continue to change, such as “me too” and the intolerance to any type of discrimination or sexual misconduct in the workplace is rightfully in the spotlight.

As the world continues to evolve and the toleration of sexual harassment and misconduct is zero, The Deschamps Report concluded that “sexual misconduct in the CAF was widespread among its ranks and endemic to its culture” (Deschamps, 2015). This finding I believe, is detrimental to the recruitment and retention of females in the CAF. Although, the findings are founded and there are many steps being taken to address these findings, to a young prospective female recruit, this portrait of “widespread sexual misconduct” (Deschamps, 2015) would not be an attractive working environment or an employer of choice”.

Recruitment into any organization is a very complex, expensive and time-consuming endeavor. It is a perpetual campaign attempting to balance interest, perception, and timing, while showcasing the employer’s attractiveness to target audiences. Specifically for the CAF we must ultimately attract all demographics of Canadians to enroll and represent the diverse country we defend.

As of late, there is a negative perception of sexual misconduct which was created from within the CAF’s most senior leadership, and through a comprehensive approach we are working hard to effect change. However, we unfortunately do not control how the CAF is portrayed by the media, and in recent months due to extremely disturbing allegations and findings, the media has depicted a picture that the CAF is not a positive, safe, or inclusive organization for women.

To further complicate the conveyance of the proper image and messaging to the female population of Canada, there is an overall unawareness of the CAF as a whole. This is as an important obstacle to overcome as the distressing messaging that has been reported on by the media. A study which was conducted in 2016 by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) concluded “Approximately 70 percent of females ranging in age from 18-24 reported not having seen, read or heard anything about CAF in 2016, which is a steadily worsened number since 2008. Of those who were aware of the CAF, most held a negative perception of how the CAF treats its members and would not favorably support pursuing it as a career.” (Defence Research and Development, 2016).

I strongly believe to increase female recruitment and retention in the CAF we first must overcome the negative perceptions and lack of awareness, and show the target audience that our organization is an evolving employer that is “committed to demonstrate leadership in reflecting Canadian ideals of diversity, respect, and inclusion, including striving for gender equality and building a workforce that leverages the diversity of Canadian society” (Minister of National Defence, 2017).

One of the main tools to counter the negative perceptions and to aid recruiting into the Profession of Arms is our influence as SA CPO1/CWOs. As an organization we must select the most appropriate candidates to be employed in Recruiting Centers; it is key to employ the right member in the each position - it is not acceptable to “fill holes” but rather select a candidate that is right for each position. This will enable the recruiter to maximize their effect as it pertains to enrolling minorities and marginalized peoples. Furthermore, the Recruiting Centers must represent all of the diversity Canada has, for example; women should be recruiting women, etc.

It is also extremely important that it not be any serving female employed as a recruiter, contrarily one whom embodies the core ethos and values and upholds the CAF/DND’s vision. The member must also be able to actively engage the target audience with their experience and assuredness as a woman, and have the charisma and persuasion required to convey the positive message over the preconceived notions of what the public views and hears about the CAF through the media. Also, in conjunction, CAF members and CAF Public Relations must be active in sharing their success stories to the Canadian population. This must be done on relevant social media outlets ensuring young Canadian females are aware of what the CAF has to offer, making the organization an attractive career choice.

Although the recruitment of females into the CAF is a priority, through the CAF reconstitution lens to mitigate unhealthy attrition, it is important to develop initiatives and establish a CAF retention strategy targeted to support tangible retention affects. Our serving members are the demographic which hold essential corporate knowledge which is critical to foster and grow the Profession of Arms. An SA CPO1/CWO is not hired, they are shaped through considerable experience, mentoring, meaningful training, and cannot be hired off of the street. As most senior females in the CAF have experienced their own significant challenges, most have persevered. One of the most important ways of giving back and to influence change is through mentorship, open-communication, mutual respect, and trust which can be rebuilt. The incorporation of a female-to-female mentorship program for serving members as well as the newly enrolled members alike, would assist with the adaptation of culture change and help the newly enrolled members adapt and assist in the culture of the CAF as their career’s progress.

Based on recommendations in The Deshamps Report, the CAF has internally begun to introduce and integrate the necessary steps through training and education to eliminate harmful and inappropriate behavior and have “placed a new focus on recruiting and retaining under-represented populations within the CAF, including but not limited to, women, indigenous peoples and members of visible minorities” (Minister of National Defence, 2017).

The CAF has integrated the “Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) in all Defence activities across the CAF and DND, from the design and implementation of programs and services that support our personnel, to equipment procurement and operational training” (Minister of National Defence, 2017). Furthermore, the following initiatives such as Operation Honour, Bystander Training, Conversations on Defence Ethics (CODE), and most recently the announcement of the GBA+ Awareness week which will be held 9-13 May 2022 signals a positive start to foster an environment that is a safe and inclusive environment for everyone. With such education and training, it will also allow us to understand and address our own bias and those of the CAF/DND so we can we mutually act to affect positive change.

As stated in the SSE “an unprecedented focus has been placed on ensuring our people and their families are well-supported, diverse and resilient – physically, psychologically and socially” (Minister of National Defence, 2017), we must recognize each members’ personal needs which will never be a one size fits all. Although there is an unequivocal requirement to meet the needs of the service, we cannot dismiss or ignore that the CAF must be focused on stability, work-life balance, and family.

These factors are imperative to all CAF members, however, are specifically important when it comes to the retention and recruitment of women. Understanding the CAF’s specific mandate, and the current very rich compensation and benefits programs, attention should be paid to extend the time a member spends in a geographical location, and the maternal/paternal benefits. This will ensure members are not disadvantaged in career progression while absent, raising their family.

The most significant challenge faced by the organization today to grow the Force to 25 percent female membership by 2026 continues to be the recruitment and retention of women. Self-correction will take time, it must be implemented with the creation of new strategies and initiatives to ensure the messaging that the CAF has embraced to evolve into an inclusive and diverse environment is conveyed, and must reach beyond, those who are serving and their friends and families. The CAF must expand and have more of an active information campaign strategy through social media, newspaper and magazine advertisements. It is important that we also share success stories on the relevant media outlets that will reach the appropriate demographic of women in Canada.

In this paper, I have presented that women have the same career opportunities in the CAF as males, the culture and identity of the CAF is evolving to become a diverse and inclusive environment. However, it is the recruitment of new females and the retention of serving females in the CAF that is a major contributing factor in reaching the set goal of the CAF to have the membership of 25 percent female.

These findings bring me to the purpose of this paper and how I will answer my research question “What role and influence does an SA CPO1/CWO have through the Culture Change Initiative (Minister of National Defence, 2017) with the objective to make the CAF an employer of choice, ultimately reaching the target ratio of 1:4 female to male by 2026?”

I believe that the role of the SA CPO1/CWO is key in moving the initiative forward, and is given the means through the dimension of Internal Integration. This approach will ensure the SA CPO1/CWO’s message is conveyed and the appropriate steps may be taken to create an environment that is respectful and safe for current females to be retained, and attractive for new females to enroll.

The roles and responsibilities of a SA CPO1/CWO must be in line with what it would require to effect this change, in particular the competency of envisioning must be delivered on values and ethos. It is a shared responsibility across all ranks to support our members. As a SA CPO1/CWO, the most important thing we do is to lead from the front. The SA CPO1/CWO is well positioned to influence the CAF to create an environment that can achieve the target percentage of women. This may be achieved by championing the development of the CAF/DND vision, acting as an ambassador for the change and ensuring the proper message and intent is well understood by all.

In well-positioned roles of influence as the stewards of the Profession of Arms it is essential that we foster the creation of a safe and inclusive work environment for everyone. We have been appointed into our current roles because our leaders believed in our leadership and potential. In such a privileged role of influence, it is imperative that we work collaboratively for our members, and provide an environment where they can be their best.

We cannot change the past, but we must learn from it. In the present, we must ensure that the safe, diverse, and inclusive changes made are embraced and enforced. Most importantly, it is the role of an SA CPO1/CWO to shape the future and ensure the proper message is conveyed to all members of the CAF, and is equally important to reach the public. It is also imperative that we lead the change and explore outside solutions from industry and other militaries from around the world in the attempt to incorporate their ideas and initiatives into the CAF. This endeavor will take time – the CAF may not achieve the desired goal to account for twenty-five percent of total enrollment of females by 2026 however, we must consistently work towards the objective with conviction in hopes that one day we will one day reach the target.


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