The army says it has improved, but women continue to leave
‘IT'S A MOAN’S WORLD’
The army says it has improved, but women continue to leave
The Canadian Forces recruiting office in down town Montreal has taken pains to make the military seem inviting to women. Two female man nequins stand at attention in the waiting area, one decked out in combat fatigues but sporting coral lips and long eyelashes, the other wearing
the air force’s blue uniform. A massive wall poster of a female soldier declares: “Women in the army: a force for change.” Nearby, a young woman studies one of the recruitment flyers lining a shelf. The 23-year-old restaurant worker, who declines to give her name, has twice seen GI Jane, last year’s Demi Moore action movie about a female soldier who enrolls in an elite all-male unit. “I’m the only one of my friends who liked it,” the smiling, visibly fit francophone confides. She is thinking of applying to the army. She expects to face some resistance because of her gender, she says. But, she adds, ‘That pushes me more—and if I succeed and get through, it will be even more worth it.” That determination may prove vital, given the hostili-
ty and harassment many military women say they have been subjected to. Strength in numbers is not a fallback option. In the Canadian Forces, women are still a tiny minority—less than 11 per cent, with most concentrated in the support ranks. And despite a 1989 order from the federal human rights tribunal that the military eliminate job barriers for women by next year, women still fill only about one per cent of combat positions. In its annual report last year, the Canadian Human Rights Commission expressed concern about the Forces’ pace of integration. Others are more blunt. “I call it foot-dragging,” charges retired Lt.-Col.
Shirley Robinson, who in 1985 formed the Association for Women’s Equity in the Canadian Forces after a 30-year military career. “It should be old hat by now—they have not been fully committed to this.”
In Ottawa, Cmdr. Deborah Wilson, who monitors gender issues, acknowledges that the brass mistakenly assumed that %•
“change would happen naturally” once it lifted barriers to women. It did not work out that way. The military’s first attempt, in 1989, to bring women into combat units was hardly a resounding success. In the infantry, for example, only four out of the first 100 women who signed up made it through training—and all of them left the military within the first few years. Since then the military, which currently has 131 women in combat positions—down sharply from the 165 it had as
recently as January—has not done any targeted recruiting. Until now. In March, the department of national defence began a $ 1.5-million advertising campaign to recruit 250 women into combat jobs this year. And according to Wilson, the service has taken pains to identify barriers to women and make changes to its training system. Among other things, the Forces want sufficient numbers of women going through training at the same time. “One of the key elements is this notion of critical mass,” explains Wilson. “It’s a lot harder to go through as a single woman of an all-male group.”
Even if women make it through training, keeping them in frontline jobs is another challenge. A recent study by Wilson’s office, for example, found that the attrition rate for women in combat jobs is more than four times that of men. The study did not offer any explanation for that trend, but if the case of Capt.
Sandra Perron is any indication, harassment may be one of the reasons. A 1992 training exercise photo-
graph of Perron—tied to a tree, barefoot in the snow, a “prisoner of war”—caused an uproar when it appeared in the media in 1996. Perron, who had quit the army earlier that year, recently broke her silence and acknowledged that she left the military because of the treatment she was forced to endure.
Other women who served on the front lines of integration acknowledge that it was a bumpy ride. Dr. Bonnie Henry, 33, was medical officer on HMCS Provider for
three years in the early 1990s. She says that some female crew members objected to seamen posting photos of naked women, while military spouses had their own concerns about rumors of relationships on the ship. “It didn’t happen,” says Henry. “It wasn’t some big love boat.” But Henry, who is now studying in San Diego, Calif., left the navy in 1995 and cites sexism as one of the reasons. Recalls Henry: “I used to say, when I was at sea, ‘I’d like to just go through the whole day without somebody reminding me that I’m a woman.’ ”
Others are more scathing. “I’ve only met two women in my entire career who said they were not harassed,” asserts retired captain Catherine Newman, who left the military in 1994. “And one was a major married to a colonel.” According to the Canadian Forces’ annual harassment report, military personnel filed 144 formal complaints in the 1996-1997 fiscal year—up from 127 in the year before. Women, mostly from the lower ranks, filed 54 per cent
NO STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
The 6,630 women of the Canadian Forces made up 10.8 per cent of the military’s 61,547 members on Jan. I, 1998. Female representation within the Forces’ main occupational groups:
TOTAL PERCENTAGE GROUP STRENGTH OF TOTAL COMBAT TROO! AÍR OPERATIONS TECHNICAL OMMUNI
of the complaints, mostly for personal harassment (36) and sexual harassment (31). “I think it’s safe to say the more junior you are in the organization, the more likely you are to be subjected to it,” acknowledges Wilson, adding that harassment is typically used to wield power over another person. But the problems are not restricted to the lower ranks. One high-ranking woman officer, who requested anonymity, told Maclean’s she has to fight to get invited to meetings— which should be automatic for her rank. “I have to fight for everything,” she complains, adding matter-of-factly: “It’s a man’s world.”
Some observers maintain that the military has made headway in making the Forces a more hospitable place for women. An ombudsman’s office is now being set up to give people another option for filing complaints. All military personnel have until this fall to take sensitivity training, which is part of the military’s ongoing antiharassment program, known as SHARP—Standard for Harassment and Racism Prevention. The one-day sensitivity course includes discussions of various staged videotaped situations. (In one example of inappropriate touching, a male doctor comes up behind a female nurse to reach for a pen, and presses up against her body.) “I think that SHARP really sent a top-down message that all members of the Canadian Forces were under the same obligation in terms of integration,” says Kathryn Bindon, the president of Okanagan University College and former chairwoman of a government advisory committee, which monitored the military’s integration efforts.
Some service members note that the SHARP program has had some impact on the ground. “People are almost paranoid to say anything wrong,” one woman soldier told Maclean’s. “It’s really a hypersensitive area.” Other women also report happier experiences on the gender front. “I’ve been very well accepted,” says Bernadette Burke, a master seaman who joined the military in 1980. Still, five § years after she joined, Burke, now 37, took part in a § sea trial for women sailors and boarded a ship where « some of the men called them the “split asses.” But
1 Burke, who has worked in all three branches of the 7 military, maintains that attitudes towards women
2 have improved and she now notices a greater I degree of acceptance among young soldiers. Still, she acknowledges the problem is far from solved. ° “It’s getting better,” says Burke, “but it’s a slow I process.” And too many women, it seems, are not I prepared to wait out that evolution. □
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