I claim no expertise in the area of gender and security, but as a faculty member at the Canadian Forces College (CFC), I have spent the last 15 years teaching and learning from over 100 senior officers (colonels and naval captains) and more than 1000 others at the mid-career level (majors and lieutenant-commanders), all of whom were selected to attend the CFC because of their leadership potential.
To be clear, then, I have no experience with non-commissioned members, nor have I worked with more junior officers.
With these caveats, and with the full academic freedom that I have been granted as a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, here are three anecdotes that might inspire tangible change.
A training development officer once explained to me that they never expected to come to the CFC because people in their trade never progressed much further than the rank of major.
In class, they demonstrated genuine potential, but the scars from being told implicitly (and perhaps also explicitly) that they would never be a real leader in the Canadian Armed Forces were obvious.
Another officer was a star on the mid-career program. They remained at the College the following year as defence staff (part-time professional mentor, part-time co-instructor), and excelled again.
The collective institutional feeling at the time, to the best of my understanding, was that they were already everything the CAF could ask for in a future leader.
And I think they do still want to lead, but they would like to make their difference as a military chaplain.
Qualifying as a chaplain means not only going back to school, but also accepting a two-rank demotion. So they are no longer on the leadership track.
Finally, a few years ago, we welcomed the first military doctor to our executive-level program.
At the time, the CAF as an institution had yet to grasp the traumatic impact of service in Afghanistan on so many of its members.
The doctor’s intervention in a spontaneous conversation about mental health marked the first time that I’d seen some of the officers who had still had doubts about the seriousness of non-physical injuries sit up and listen.
He spoke humbly, but also with just the right amount of authority to break through.
All three of these officers are the sorts of people who could make a real difference within the CAF’s senior leadership.
But none of them ever will. (The doctor has already left.)
Written and unwritten rules prevent training development officers, chaplains, doctors, lawyers, military police, reservists, and all sorts of others who form part of our military’s proverbial “tail” (a disproportionate number of whom are women) from ever reaching the most senior ranks.
When I first asked why such choke-points existed, I was told that those who fight on the “frontlines” wouldn’t serve under anyone who had worked primarily in “supporting” roles.
I am ashamed that, at the time, I thought it made sense. I was as much a product of that same cult of masculinity as those explaining it to me.
What I have come to realize, however, is that not only does such thinking prevent some incredible people from fulfilling their potential as officers in the service of our country, it also denies those who do reach such positions of authority access to the diversity of thinking and experience that might otherwise inform and enhance military advice to government (not to mention efforts to improve the CAF as a whole).
No matter your intent, it’s hard to be empathetic when you have so little exposure to how the other half lives.
Fortunately, a growing number of senior CAF leaders agree: the increasing appearance of medical practitioners and military police on our executive-level course is a measure of real progress.
But doubters remain, and that’s a problem.
I continue to witness too many exceptional individuals who have unfailingly put service before self in support of their country leave the Canadian Armed Forces too soon, all because the institution has deemed them unqualified to lead at the most senior levels.
In sum, to change the CAF’s culture, it might be time to reconsider how we choose our most senior general and flag officers.
For a similar argument by feminists who study these issues academically, take a look at this recent article in the Ottawa Citizen. As the authors note, Mount Saint Vincent University’s Maya Eichler is also a critical source.
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