'Global Outlook' by David Bercuson

Increasing the female presence in peace ops

by David Bercuson

Frontline Defence
November 24, 2017

There is a new move afoot both in the United Nations and in Canada to increase the number of women in UN peace operations. The prime reason seems to be that an increased presence of women in UN operations will undermine the remarkably persistent problem of sexual abuse by UN personnel on peace support operations, especially in Africa. Put simply, it is assumed that women soldiers and/or police will not engage in that type of spurious activity.

The reasoning seems sound enough, and also points to the question of what specialized roles women can play in the Canadian Armed Forces.

It was decided long ago, by the courts, that Canadian women ought to have an equal opportunity to participate in the Canadian Armed Forces and, eventually, if they qualified without lowering physical standards, in the combat arms as well. In making those decisions, Canada followed a host of other countries, and also led others – such as the U.S. – that had relegated women to combat service support and flying aircraft but not combat itself. That has now changed in the United States.

The admission of women to all branches of the Canadian Armed Forces has brought with it a blessing and a curse.

The curse is the persistence of sexual abuse in the CAF and the continuing unfolding of such crimes despite General Jonathan Vance's consistent efforts to change the culture. Operation Honour was designed by the Chief of the Defence Staff to wipe out sexual misconduct in the military.  There are any number of good reasons why the CAF must continue its efforts in this vein, beginning with the basic fact that the military in this or any democratic country depends heavily on public support not only to pay its bills, but also to maintain morale among the troops at the highest possible level.

As Canadian society itself is slowly learning, there simply is no room for gender discrimination in government, private industry or the armed forces. No nation can afford to put a glass ceiling over 50+% of its population in this modern age and hope to achieve brilliance in the sciences, arts, or business. And the same is true of the military. So even discounting the question of moral public (and private) behaviour – what is plainly right and what is plainly wrong in how males treat females – the public is far more intolerant of gender discrimination today than at any point in the past, and if such discrimination (or sexual misbehavior) continues in the military, public support will quickly erode.

The blessing is that key roles in non-kinetic environments can be better performed by women than by men. Let’s face it, there is a difference in both mentality and empathy between the way women will generally tackle social issues than men. It is not a stark and dramatic difference, but there is a difference. And in non-kinetic operations, such as peace-building and development (which are both vital activities in counter-insurgency operations) women may well do a better job than men not only in relating to other women, but in relating to social issues in general.

This is not to say that women should be restricted to CIMIC operations, nor discouraged from operating mortars or machine guns if they meet the physical requirements, but that these other necessary military skills should seek out women soldiers as being particularly apt for such situations.

Once again, however, women’s performance in any branch of the armed services will depend largely on their self-confidence, and nothing erodes self-confidence faster than discrimination or sexual harassment.

So kudos to the government in making the current effort to bring more women into the Canadian Armed Forces and to General Vance in trying to stamp out unacceptable behavior among male soldiers.  But the struggle for true equality will not be an easy one given the very nature of soldiering itself.

David Bercuson, Research Director, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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  • commented 2017-12-03 09:07:25 -0500

    The link is to a Brit example which hopefully will never come to pass, but it’s indicative of what happens when gender goals trump performance goals. In fields that the pubic truly care about- professional sports- these types of ideas would be instantly ridiculed but in the military they are increasingly embraced.

    The illogic of the Brit example is startling. If a soldier can’t pass selection without carrying less weight why would she be expected to be able to keep up on patrol? Or does the SAS have a “non-patrolling” element. Is a girl who couldn’t pass the normal version of selection supposed to be treated like one of the guys? It’s absurd but tax payers increasingly fund ridiculous PC quests in their defence departments. Given the political climate in Ottawa I would expect to see some kind of “get females in CANSOF” push to start soon.
  • commented 2017-11-27 09:41:07 -0500
    “No nation can afford to put a glass ceiling over 50+% of its population in this modern age and hope to achieve brilliance in the sciences, arts, or business. And the same is true of the military.”

    I’ve seen no evidence that the CF is aiming at “brilliance”. “Meet the standard” is the normal goal. Bercuson’s real premise is that by lowering fitness standards the CF will attract and retain females who are somehow excellent at war. If this is true why have fitness standards at all? Surely there must be some obese, aged, poorly educated or slightly disabled people who would be good at war. Shouldn’t everyone get a chance?

    But there is a reverse side to the “let everyone in” school. How many very good soldiers have quit or high potential applicants walked away because they see the CF as a non-serious organization? This is the main function of SOF in a modern army. To provide a serious place for soldiers. The removal of the supposed “glass ceiling” will reduce the average quality of the CF as standards are lowered, ignored or waived and people leave out of frustration or embarrassment.
  • commented 2017-11-27 09:28:26 -0500
    “…in the Canadian Armed Forces and, eventually, if they qualified without lowering physical standards”.

    The physical fitness standards of the CF have been lowered. Applicants are no longer even tested. The latest test (for those going on operations) allows “waivers” for those who can’t pass and has a 5km march carrying 35 kg of gear versus the old test of 13 km carrying 25 kg. Neither test simulates actual loads troops will carry (45 Kg for a rifleman) not the endurance required to patrol all day. The new test also includes dragging 85 kg of sandbags across a gym floor to simulate rescuing a casualty (the old test included fireman’s lifting someone your approximate weight 100 m) . Since a wounded soldier probably wouldn’t have his helmet or armour taken off the “casualty” simulated would weigh about 61 Kg ( 135 lbs). That’s at least 23 kg less than reality and of course we’re unlikely to have casualties on polished gym floors. There are other parts of the test but all are a joke for any healthy male. They might challenge middle aged female soldiers but that’s what the waivers are for.

    The CF is in a quandary. It wants to increase female participation but at the same time would like to have high fitness standards. Those are contradictory aims not because some women might be fit enough to be in the infantry but because by setting goals and quotas any attempt to raise standards will be seen through the lens of keeping women out. This latest attempt at setting quite reasonable (in fact far too low) standards for operations is just another example of the CF trying to maintain some sort of standard. In reality it’s a waste of time and effort.

    Stephen Ambrose’s “Pegasus Bridge” describes the fitness program an army unit serious about operations would do. It’s more than worth a read.
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