Can the U.S. learn from Canada re: women in combat roles?

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.

NCPR’s Joanna Richards was quick to get local reaction, portions of which got lots of national play. NPR’s Greg Myre presented a broad view with “Women in Combat: 5 Key Questions”.

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.

Corporal Venessa Larter of the Canadian Forces on patrol in the village of Spin Kalacheh in Afghanistan. Photo: Sergeant Carole Morissette, courtesy

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?


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10 Comments on “Can the U.S. learn from Canada re: women in combat roles?”

  1. Lucy Martin says:

    Post script:

    Just found this article on the Wall Street Journal “Canada offers lessons on women in combat”

    Here is one of its main points:

    “Canadian officers say women warriors proved as effective as men in front-line combat roles in Ottawa’s most recent big military engagement, in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2011. But Canada has struggled to fill combat jobs with women, and those who do join can feel isolated as a result. And like Cpl. Moman, many of the women who volunteered for these jobs got the impression that their senior officers used them only sparingly in combat.”

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  2. Paul says:

    There are a few exceptIons where there is hand to hand combat where you probably want to be bigger. I know that, I as a small guy would not favor well. But basically the weapons pretty much level the playing field. Women should do whatever they can. Whoever is willing to serve deserves the chance to do what they can.

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  3. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Based on a law enforcement and military background I think there are some women who can do the job as well as the run of the mill male. There are also a lot of women that just can’t because of the physical strength required. If the female in question, or male for that matter, can pass the required testing, fine. If the standards are lowered, which seems to be the norm everywhere, then we’re putting everyone at risk. Weapons may level the playing field but you still have to be able to hump the gear into combat and do all the running, climbing, etc. too.

    I would also hope that the females gender is not used to unfairly inflate their contributions or to award them decoration undeserved. It’s happened in the past.

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  4. Pete Klein says:

    While people are attacking movies and video games for having too much violence and there is some merit to this criticism, movies and video games could also be attacked for making it seem everyone in the military is a over developed body builder thug with a gun.

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  5. Paul says:

    One issue is related to what you see with these mass shootings. I think that maybe men are better killers. That can be a very useful characteristic in war.

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  6. Rancid Crabtree says:

    It’s fantasy Pete. Look at the women in the games and movies. Sorry, finding a Lara Croft in your neighborhood would be pretty rare. You’re far more likely to find Madge Simpson, and she’s no Wilma Flintstone. Who wants to watch a movie where Ernest Borgnine is the hunky leading man and Phylis Diller is the hot chick?

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  7. Paul says:

    RC, It’s Marge not Madge. Can’t let that one slip.

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  8. Paul says:

    Pete, I thought that the military is actually using some of these games in their training? Also, I have heard that the Navy still loves the movie Top Gun. Now showing at Imax. I gotta see that.

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  9. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Arrgghh! My sincerest apologies Paul, and to you Mrs. Simpson, where ever you are! Sorry, I was always a Judy Jetson kinda guy.

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  10. mervel says:

    If the military is for it than it should not be a problem.

    I think it is mainly about promotion however. Women are already in combat, yet they miss out on the promotions that can come about in the Military only if you have active combat listed in your resume.

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