Women in the Canadian Armed Forces

By: Valerie Chalmers

Throughout Canadian history women have actively participated in war from the home front to the front lines. The percentage of women in the Canadian Armed Forces (Regular Force and Primary Reserve combined), the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Canadian Army range between 12.4% and 18.4%. Women enrollment in the CAF sits below 20% for a variety of reasons. The CAF have implemented a variety of initiatives for employment equity and earlier this year the Canadian Armed Forces launched a program to give women the opportunity to learn about military life before they decide to join.

“War has impacted Canadian women’s lives in different ways, depending on their geographical location, and their racial and economic status. Pre-20th-century conflicts had great impact on women in Canada — Aboriginal women in particular — whose communities could be dispossessed and devastated by colonial militaries. Women were interned in Canada during wartime — that is, detained and confined — because their background could be traced to enemy states.” – The Canadian Encyclopedia

Canadian women have had a consistent presence throughout the various wars our country has been involved in. During both the First and Second World Wars women organized home defence, trained in rifle shooting and military drill. In 1941, 50,000 women enlisted in the air force, army and navy. Throughout different divisions they were trained for clerical, administrative and support roles as well as cooks, nurses and seamstresses. Women’s involvement expanded when they began to work as parachute riggers, laboratory assistants, drivers and within the electrical and mechanical trades. Women also worked to maintain our home economy by volunteering inside and outside of the country, producing and conserving food, raising funds for hospitals, ambulances, hostels and aircrafts. Women have made considerable contributions to Canada’s military efforts, despite this it wasn’t until 1989 where all military positions were opened to women.

As of 2014, there were more than 9,400 women in the Regular Force and more than 4,800 in the Primary Reserve. The Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy have the highest representation of women at 18.7 per cent and 18.4 per cent. According to the Government of Canada, women today are joining the CAF with the widest range of options for occupations and career advancement.” There are a few theories as to why women enrolment sits below 20%. Women are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, according TO the researchers at the University of Manitoba. Their findings do not explain the psychological differences between men and women but theorize that women could face an additional pressure being a minority, are treated as outsiders and face stereotyping. Women in the forces often fill dual roles at home and work which can make the unpredictability of the job more stressful. “Sexual harassment in the military is also a fact of life women have to deal with,” Sheila Hellstrom, a retired brigadier. The Canadian Armed Forces have recognized the barriers that are in place for women in the military and are working toward eliminating discriminatory practices and attitudes.

“Psychological studies have cited that women in the Forces could face additional pressure, women are more likely to suffer major depression, post traumatic stress disorder and social phobia.” National Post

The CAF has implemented a variety of initiatives and inclusion programs for women to encourage more women enrollment. The forces are focusing on recruiting women by an active recruiting ad showing women in all roles and “use proactive measures regarding recruitment, development and and retention of women in order to build a diverse and inclusive CAF of tomorrow.” The Forces have implemented and support Defense Advisory Groups including the Defence Women’s Advisory Organization. The goal of these groups is to consult with designated group members, provide advice and insight to the leadership issues relevant to their membership and implementation of employment equity. The CAF liaisons with other organizations and nations including being represented in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Committee on Gender Perspectives which is focused on implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions and related resolutions. National Defence and the CAF state, these resolutions address issues such as: the inclusion of women and girls in the peace process, protection of women during and after conflict, prevention of sexual violence against women and children in conflict, and pre-deployment training of military and civilian police personnel on the protection, rights and particular needs of women.” Diversity and training are another initiative of The Forces, all members are must have a clear understanding of employment equity and diversity and how it can benefit the organization. There is also a Family support initiative which provides support to members of the CAF and their families to ease the difficulties of balancing home and work life. Child care, spousal employment, lack of geographic stability, pregnancy leave and single parenthood are all factors that contribute to the departure of women from The Forces. “The CAF continually review and amend personnel policies so CAF members, both women and men, can achieve a better balance between military service and family responsibilities.” from National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.

 “Today, all equipment must be suitable for a mixed-gender force. Combat helmets, rucksacks, combat boots, and flak jackets are designed to ensure women have the same level of protection and comfort as their male colleagues. The women’s uniform is similar in design to the men’s uniform, but conforms to the female figure, and is functional and practical. Women are also provided with an annual financial entitlement for the purchase of brassiere undergarments.” – National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces

 Women have been in war, formally and informally involved in the Canadian military for over 100 years and continue to make sacrifices both physically and mentally while protecting our country, it’s interests and values while also contributing to international peace and security. While recruitment numbers of women are low the Canadian Armed Forces has recognized this. The CAF are working actively and proactively to include and encourage women enrolment. The Forces continue to do research to identify all barriers to careers in the military.

“The history of Canadian service women is an important part of our national military heritage and their achievements contribute to the full and equal inclusion of women in our society and national institutions.” – National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces

Written by Valerie Chalmers


Co Chair of Promotions & Marketing Committee, Niagara Leadership Summit for Women
Co Host of The Empowered Millennials Podcast
Member of Promotions & Marketing Committee, No Fixed Address

Member of the St. Catharines Culture Plan Sub Committee


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