Gender in the military

Sexist climate must be addressed if Canadian Forces are to recruit more women

Toxic environment fosters sexual abuse and fails to protect victims
Photo: 4 Cdn Div / 4 Div CA - JTFC/FOIC

The news that Canada’s military will launch an aggressive 10-year recruiting campaign to ensure at least 25 per cent of its personnel will be women was met with mixed reactions.

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Currently, approximately 10,000 women serve in the Regular and Reserve Forces, making up 12 per cent of personnel.

General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, has assigned Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, the chief of military personnel, to boost the number of women in uniform by one per cent each year over the coming decade.

This won’t be an easy task. Equal opportunity to work in what many view as an institution of violence doesn’t necessarily advance gender equality in the world. Further, on its website, the military states that “it has taken great strides since the 1970s to remove barriers for women to serve in the military” and “that every occupation in the Forces is open to women.” But these claims are only partially true.

Allowing women in combat and ensuring no areas are off limits to them isn’t enough if they must continue to work in a sexist environment that turns a blind eye to sexual assault and harassment. What woman would go out of her way to work in a place where the odds are much higher that she will be the target of inappropriate and criminal behaviour by her coworkers and superiors, and then not be believed or told to keep it quiet, or treated like a traitor if she comes forward?

The reality is that the military’s culture will be the biggest obstacle to hiring more women. Until the Canadian Armed Forces can truly create a safe work environment, no recruitment tool will be attractive enough to increase the low numbers of female personnel.

In 2014, Maclean’s and its sister publication in Quebec, L’actualité, published a damning months-long investigation into the military’s disturbing rape culture and a hierarchy that circles the wagons and protects its own to the detriment of the women who are brave enough to come forward. The investigation revealed countless cases of disgraceful conduct, only exacerbated and compounded by the military’s reaction — or lack thereof.

“According to statistics obtained through Canada’s Access to Information Act, military police have received between 134 and 201 complaints of sexual assaults every year since 2000. That’s an average of 178 per year. Most specialists agree that hundreds of other cases are not reported. Statistics Canada estimates that only one in 10 cases of sexual assault is reported to authorities. That means a total of 1,780 sexual assaults per year in the Canadian Forces. Or five per day.”

Following numerous media reports, General Tom Lawson, chief of the defence staff at the time, commissioned an inquiry. The results of the external review, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, were damning. Justice Deschamps referred to sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces as “endemic” and made 10 recommendations to improve the situation.

These recommendations included acknowledging the existence of a serious problem, establishing a strategy to eliminate the sexualized work environment and better integrate women, and creating an independent centre outside of the Canadian Armed Forces to receive complaints of sexual assault and harassment. Since then, the military has taken slow and tentative steps to remedy the situation.

In September, 2015, the military launched Operation Honour, allowing members to make confidential reports of sexual assault to a sexual misconduct response centre, without their superiors or military police finding out. Australian and U.S. militaries have this type of reporting in place, and in both cases it has encouraged people to come forward, increasing reporting of sexual assault. What’s important about this centre is that it operates outside the chain of command and reports to the military’s civilian side, essentially making it independent.

Over the past five months, 247 people have come forward, and the centre has fielded more than 100 complaints of sexual assault or harassment, resulting in eight investigations. But it remains to be seen whether effective fail safes will ensure that the victims aren’t victimized a second time through retaliation, ostracism, or other negative consequences.

While the Canadian Armed Forces’ efforts to recruit more women are commendable and necessary in order to achieve ensure that women who want to make the military their career are allowed to, it all means nothing without real and tangible efforts to eliminate a toxic environment that fosters sexual abuse and doesn’t protect the victims.

The military has a pages-long strict Code of Values and Ethics that references integrity, fairness, respect, openness, honesty, and transparency, among other things. Ignoring the horrific reality of rape, assault, or harassment in someone’s workplace — perpetuated by the same people that these women must rely on in situations of life and death — dishonours the code and the institution.

Ultimately, it’s not about how the military sells itself, but how it transforms itself to allow women to safely take their place at the table.

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