#WPSAdvice: Lead by example

By Karen Breeck CD, MHSc, MD, Federation of Medical Women of Canada Women, Peace and Security Committee Member

Canada has made bold commitments to the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda that we encourage the next government, regardless of party, to continue. The specific advice offered is for Canada to “lead by example”.  Canadian women in uniform are still waiting for their government to ensure an equitable (which is not the same as equal) work environment.  Leadership in WPS must first be seen at home for Canadian uniformed women, before Canada can hold itself up with integrity as the standard to which other nations should be modelling themselves after.

Members of Task Force-Mali stand easy during the Operation PRESENCE-Mali medals parade at Camp Castor on June 8, 2019. Photo: Corporal François Charest

When women were first integrated into the operational side of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), they were expected to conform to the already existing system that had, of course, been designed by men for men. This male bias can be found in everything from military customs and traditions, to military uniforms and equipment, to expected leadership styles and rewarded behaviours, to research and health care priorities.

“Add women and stir” is not the recommendation 

While many sincere efforts have attempted to rectify the challenges resulting from the “add women and stir approach” to CAF’s gender integration, most efforts have been individual “bottom-up” initiatives. The prevailing norms have required that the exact same woman who experienced the inequity firsthand, is largely left responsible to name the inequity, determine the potential solution for the inequity, and then individually advocate for the systemic changes required to remedy the inequity for her and those following behind her.  The emotional labour and burden of advocating for system change from the bottom up often ends up with the unintended consequence of costing these women both their health and wellbeing and their careers. Rarely are “bottom-up” tactical level individual initiatives successfully integrated into the desired permanent “top-down” system changes.  Yet it is only with systemic changes that true and lasting organizational improvements in equity can happen.

Other nations have learned from Canada’s initial mistake.  They provided strategic level, dedicated funding and support for positions to oversee, coordinate and disseminate lessons learned when first introducing women into all roles in the military, thus providing a  “top down” strategic support system.  Canadian military women are still waiting for the funds and resources to strategically identify and rectify the many remaining gaps and barriers that continue to hold women back from universally experiencing a gender harmonious military workplace.     

The need for pervasive culture change 

Many, including parliamentarians of all stripes, have historically endorsed a “gender blind” approach to integration (a soldier is a soldier, whether a man or a woman) which incorrectly assumes that men and women are starting off as “equal” within the military workplace.  After over 30 years of attempting to increase the number of women in the military, where is Canada at today?  It appears that taxpayers will be on the hook for well over a billion dollars to pay out federal class action lawsuits for LGBTQ, race and sexual misconduct (military and RCMP).  Although much progress has been made regarding the integration of women into all workforces, in the end, the crown has failed to lead by example. Federal workplaces, be them military or RCMP or Parliament Hill, are still not free from sexual violence and discrimination. 

Barriers to service and deployment

Effective culture change requires further implementation of Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+) at all levels.  This will ensure that policies, programs and equipment procurement are funded, designed, implemented and quality assured to enable women to be operationally effective in their jobs, regardless of their physical and physiological differences from men. CAF leadership has fully committed to culture change. OP HONOUR is evidence of that. Effective culture change however, requires strong leadership from within and from outside the organization. Culture change requires subject matter experts to conduct specialized training, individualized mentorships for senior leaders, and independent quality assurance to oversee and monitor progress.  These components require dedicated positions, personnel and money from government to achieve the desired federal government workplace culture change.

A member of Operation PRESENCE-Mali stands at ease during the Aviation Battalion’s Change of Command Parade at Camp Castor in Gao, Mali on January 21, 2019. Photo: Corporal Ken Beliwicz

WPS evidence strongly supports that the meaningful participation of women in all aspects of military-related conflict resolution, including as uniformed members of peace operations, leads to stronger, more durable peace outcomes. In support of peace, the Canadian government has committed in its National Action Plan to increasing the number of women in the CAF to 25% within the next decade and to 15% women on future UN deployments.  Canada has also committed to helping other nations deploy more uniformed women on United Nations peace operations through the Elsie Initiative. Canada must be seen to be leading by example domestically through its own success stories before it can legitimately stand up to act as mentor for other nations.  This is important not only to preserve Canadian reputational credibility but also for the sake of setting up the brave, trailblazing women who are leading the gender integration efforts in their own nations’ militaries for success.    

Canada has taken an important first step.  Canada has asked the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) to study and identify any potential barriers to deployment for women in the CAF.  Some challenges are already known. Examples include equipment limitations such as ballistic vests that don’t fit properly over female breasts and the lack of female specific UN medical care standards and capabilities. In fact, the UN’s Director of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has recommended for countries who are deploying troops to ensure they include at least one female physician and obstetric and gynaecological specialists on all medical teams.

The way ahead

Our #WPSadvice for the new government is to continue with Gender-based Analysis (GBA+) across all of Government, but especially in the military where its time to implement it deeper.  Military equipment is more likely to need procurement change, redesign, modification or alteration for equitable use by women and that costs money.  Women make more health care related visits than men, so more women in the military means more health care provider positions and resources are needed. There are still many gaps in occupational health research knowledge for Canadian women in uniform, particularly in the area of sex-specific operational health including but not limited to reproduction health. Female specific research is commonly more complicated and expensive then male only research. Simply put, women do cost more than men to recruit and retain in the military. 

If Canada is serious about supporting WPS objectives, then the Government of Canada needs to provide the oversight and financial resources to ensure servicewomen have workplaces that support and enable their full and equitable participation across the military. Thirty years ago, Canada was considered a world leader in women’s participation in the military. With a bit of focused financial help, Canada could be true WPS world leaders once again.   

Please note that the views in these blog posts are those of the authors and may not represent the views of all members of the WPSN-C.

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