Women have been gaining more ground in the armed forces, not only in Canada but also in Western armed forces organizations. There has been increased recognition of women successfully fulfilling military roles that were exclusively performed by men in the past. In fact, since the end of WWII, the nature of armed conflict has changed. Conflict actors had been mostly states where security policies primarily focused on protecting borders and state sovereignty. However, civil society violence and non-state actors such as terrorist organizations have extended the security concept to address individuals’ and communities’ safety and security. 

Consequently, the change in conflict features led to a shift in the skillsets and assets needed for defence organizations. It is now widely recognized that women play an essential role in the future of warfare, peace building and peace keeping missions, as well as conflict resolution. In October 2000, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1325 recognized and reaffirmed women’s vital role in dealing with modern conflict characteristics. However, despite acknowledging women’s importance in conflict management, integrating such facts into defence policies has been challenging for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

The CAF has set women’s representation to reach 25% of its total personnel by 2026. Canada was one of the first Western countries to allow women to serve in the military without any restrictions. However, women’s integration has been uneven and met with a great deal of resistance to change the status quo.  At first glance, it is the CAF’s responsibility to reshape the image of the women soldier. Nonetheless, one must not ignore the prominent individual role that women soldiers, already in the armed force, have in supporting the efforts to enhance their representation in the organization as a whole.

Women soldiers already in the CAF play an essential role in solidarity and support of potential enlistees and other women within the armed forces, especially those at the lower part of the chain of command. The CAF claims that “a soldier is a soldier, regardless of the sex.” However, the image of soldiers is traditionally equated with men. There is this perspective that female soldiers have to become “honorary men” to gain recognition from their male peers, especially in leadership positions. This view of the armed forces as male-defined, even if indirectly, has averted women’s interest, who still view the CAF as a space for men alone.

The CAF made some advances in this area with more inclusive advertisements and the Defence Women’s Advisory Organization’s (DWAO) focus on the consultation to remove barriers to women’s inclusion. Nevertheless, the military is still seen by society as a male-dominant sector, which also impedes an internal acceptance of the contrary. Thus, reshaping this view from the inside is crucial for society to see the CAF as a place where both women and men are associated with the idea of a soldier. Women within the forces can play an active role in this by seizing the opportunity to organize themselves in solidarity to enforce change within the armed forces.

A qualitative study carried out with women in leadership roles in the armed forces asked their opinion on what is needed for women’s success in the sector. Interviewees described that the traditionally male-dominated organization hinders the development of women leaders who conform to the male perspective, making women “invisible” for leadership roles. The results found two measures needed to support women’s progress into leadership roles: the involvement of an organizational strategy and women’s individual strategy.

First, the organizational strategy, meaning the armed forces, should make women’s skills more visible while promoting women’s career trajectory in the armed forces. It is also imperative that the organization show support from peers and chain of command as a central feature in women soldiers’ success. Hence, raising awareness and encouraging male peers to support women is essential for mutual respect to occur and furthermore, to improve the organization’s image. The organization can achieve this by supporting the coaching and mentoring of women from leaders, support from subordinates, promotion of role models, and formalizing women’s career path structure to leadership roles.

Second, the individual strategy is the role in which military women themselves must support each other for mutual success and redefine the image so that the soldier does not equate exclusively to men. Therefore, two measures must be applied: (1) professional networking, creating women military networks where they support each other, where leaders can provide their experiences and support recruits and their career paths. (2) Support proactive measures for women to occupy space. In other words, support women in pursuing career goals, and proactively taking responsibility within their workspace and influencing their work.

From an international perspective, the Bulgarian Armed Forces (BAF) and the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) have internal organizations that involve both organizational and individual policy strategies. The BAF has strong network support for women in the military through an internal and independent organization, the Bulgarian Armed Forces Women’s Association (BUAFWA). In addition to advising policy to overcome inclusion barriers, BUAFWA focuses on promoting and endorsing women’s prestige and social status in the armed forces and implementing women in the peace and security agenda. The association has the authority to directly inform the Minister of Defence and Chief of Defence of discrimination cases and actively participate in the Ministry of Defence’s decision-making process by giving opinions and statements. The ADF, on the other hand, has strong support for women’s individual strategy. Each service branch has a strong network to support women in the military, including mentoring of new recruiters, networking with senior offices and leadership programs for women soldiers throughout their careers.

The Defence Women’s Advisory Organizations (DWAO) can be an effective organization to incorporate these two strategies into the CAF. The DWAO is a voluntary organization with open membership and mostly consultative authority. Its main objective is to provide advice and feedback to the Department of National Defence (DND) and the CAF in policy or process that might constitute barriers to both military and civil women within the organization. Because of the organization’s advisory nature, its main focus is to provide feedback on policy initiated outside the organization. For the most part, DWAO’s feedback is added into Gender Based analysis (GBA+) and equity employment consultation of the policy processes. In other words, it does not have the authority to advocate specific policies in more prominent means.

Moreover, like many volunteer-based organizations, it is limited in reach, which affects the quality of output. This critique is not to take away the merit of the DWAO. Instead, it is to encourage the CAF, DND, and women soldiers to work towards an organization that functions as an advisory actor while advocating for change to play a more prominent role in shaping policy. Hence, there are two options: create an initiative for servicewomen to create a new organization for Canadian women soldiers, or reshape the DWAO -perhaps to something that resembles the BUAFWA. The bottom line is to provide an empowered organization where women soldiers can support other women to address organizational and individual strategies for women to flourish in the armed forces. Enhancing women’s participation is undeniably an essential aspect of the CAF’s capacity and readiness in dealing with the modern conflict arena.



André Arraîs is a second-year MA student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, pursuing a specialization in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. His research interests centre around immigration and Canadian foreign and defence policy. 




Banner image courtesy of Pixabay.

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