It was big news this week when Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced the U.S. military will end policies that have long barred women from many combat-related jobs.
Supporters of the change said this only recognizes what’s already been happening. But the official shift is huge – in terms of equity and professional opportunity within the armed services.
Critics have a lot of concerns. Some objections seem rooted in individual notions of appropriate gender roles. Others fear basic physical realities will be ignored in the name of equal opportunity.
Most of these questions are considered settled in Canada. Gender-based discrimination in the Canadian Forces was (technically) ended in the late 1980′s. Here’s a CBC timeline on women in the Canadian military.
Opening combat jobs to women tends to be controversial. How did those same tensions play out in Canada?
Well, it was challenging. Even after policies changed, implementation took years.
If everyone is honest, it’s still a challenge.
But the standard response in Canada goes like this: equal opportunity is the reality and it works. It’s just a matter of proper implementation and training.
By and large Canada’s Armed Forces had to drop gender discrimination nearly 24 years ago because those policies were found to be a violation of the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Canada’s prohibition on women serving on submarines was dropped in in 2000.)
Speaking in Dec 2012 on CBC radio’s “The Current”, a specialist on Canadian defense, Karen Davis, looked back at opening combat roles to women:
“…it took time, there was a lot of resistance…by 1999 they were well on the way to realizing that it was not about resisting the integration, it was about making it work.”
[Note: that's my transcription of her audio comments, which begin at 19:00 into the 27:29 minute segment]
In the same interview Davis went on to detail that from 1989 to 1997 Canada utilized “less than 70 women from combat arms into different operational deployments”. Since then, there have been over 600 such deployments. (Some of that number being the same individuals being deployed more than once).
Australia dropped its ban on women in combat roles in 2011. Canadian Col. Jennie Carignan commanded a combat engineering regiment in Afghanistan. As reported by Jennifer Ditchburn for the Canadian Press, in 2012 Carigan was part of a group that spent two weeks in Australia speaking about full integration of women.
Carignan says men and women all come to the military with varying capabilities, and it’s up to the leadership to deploy them based on strengths and weaknesses.
“We’ve seen this countless times out in operations or on exercises — the guy who ends up saving the day on the battlefield is not the guy who looks best in the weight room.”
You can read more about Carignan, her spouse Eric Lefrancois (a former engineer in the Canadian military) and their four children in this 4-part BBC news profile from 2010, Women at war: How roles are changing.
In 2011, the National Post reported women made up 8.3% of Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan. The figures came from a study presented by Krystel Carrier-Sabourin, a doctoral student at Kingston’s Royal Military College.
Because the 1989 policy change was originally “imposed” on the Canadian Forces from the “outside”, Carrier-Sabourin said it was initially met with resistance. She says that has diminished over time:
“They’re more accepted by their male peers because they’ve proven they’re competent, and that they’re there because they are competent and not because they have been parachuted in just to meet some gender quotas,” said Ms. Carrier-Sabourin.
Now the U.S. military has to walk this same path. And not everyone likes it. This Feb 2012 article entitled “Women get one step closer to combat” comes from the official blog site of the U.S. Marine Corp. There’s a vigorous debate in the comment section, which airs out the usual positions, pro and con.
Marsha Kay wrote about this topic from the Canadian perspective for the Toronto Star back in 2011. One of the people she quotes is Lt. Col. (retired) Shirley Robinson, a 30-year veteran of the Canadian military.
Then there’s the argument that women don’t have the physical strength of men. It’s a fact; most don’t. But some do. The Canadian Forces testing standards are different for men and women: for example, a 25-year-old man needs to do a minimum of 19 sit-ups, a 25-year-old woman, only 15. “We never asked for standards to be lowered. Not once,” says Robinson. “Put standards on the job, not the person, and then it doesn’t matter a damn if it’s a man or a woman.”
In Canada, it’s still a sore point among some men that gender plays a role in the differing standards. But so does age, with lower requirements for ages 35 and up.
Kay’s article speaks in support of gender equality but she doesn’t present this as a world that’s all rainbows and smiles.
Still, deployed women may well be at greater risk of sexual abuse and assault than men. Capt. Nichola Goddard, who in 2006 became Canada’s first female combat death, wrote a revealing letter three months earlier to her husband, now documented in the book Sunray: The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard by Valerie Fortney.
“There were six rapes in the camp last week, so we have to work out an escort at night,” Goddard wrote. She didn’t say whether the alleged perpetrators were fellow soldiers, who she said spread rumours about her sleeping with men on the base, or Afghan soldiers or civilians, who she said constantly leered at her.
One last personal observation. As a child, one of my brothers thought maybe he’d like to be a policeman when he grew up. This was many decades ago, when local department policy said that policemen had to be big, strong and tall. (And men, obviously!) Now, this brother is plenty strong but he’s not especially tall.
Conventional wisdom then said only beefy men could be effective in that job. Today it seems well-accepted that policing demands skills that aren’t necessarily dependent on gender or height.
I favor Shirley Robinson’s position. Identify what is – and what is not – necessary to perform a given job. Establish clear standards. And then let qualified applicants have a crack at it, without disqualifying by race, gender or sexual orientation.
Or is that easier said than done? What do you think?