Breaking the Glass Floor: CAF Culture Change Through Mentorship for Women


Image credit: Corporal Alexandre Brisson/Canadian Armed Forces Photo


by Sandra Biskupski-Mujanovic
October 2023


Table of Contents


The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are committed to “addressing and preventing all forms of systemic misconduct and supporting those who have been harmed,” to achieving “sustainable and intersectional cultural change” and to creating “an environment where members can reach their full potential and contribute meaningfully to the Defence of Canada.”1 The spectrum of harms that CAF culture change seeks to address includes lack of inclusivity, bullying, threats, unsupportive environments, intimidation, violence, micro-aggressions and harassment. Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, chief of professional conduct and culture (CPCC), stated: “Culture is every one of us, and one of the biggest ways our culture impacts us is simply how people treat each other every day.”2

Note that CAF culture is not homogenous and varies from element to element and regiment to regiment. Yet, to foster the culture change required to address and prevent misconduct, not only is a holistic approach necessary but also there must be a greater emphasis on bottom-up approaches to transforming CAF culture. In this piece, I will focus on the need to break the glass floor and how mentorship for women is one way this can be accomplished.

One piece of the culture change puzzle is improving diversity and representation in the CAF to better reflect the Canadian population. White men account for approximately 39 per cent of Canada’s available workforce but account for about 71 per cent of the CAF population. Women account for approximately 48 per cent of the Canadian workforce, yet only account for 18 per cent of the CAF population.3 These statistics demonstrate that the CAF is far from reaching its goal of increasing the representation of women to 25 per cent by 2026. While the CAF has unfortunately leveraged diversity to enhance operational effectiveness, diversity efforts should focus on equity. Under-represented or marginalized people would be more willing to join the CAF if its culture were welcoming to them. Likewise, they are unlikely to join an institution where the burden to improve culture is placed on their shoulders. Hence, fostering a welcoming culture for all is imperative.4

An unwelcome and hostile culture also limits women’s ability to advance as barriers persist. In all CAF elements (army, air force, navy), women are mostly concentrated in administrative, logistics and intelligence roles. In fact, many women in the CAF pursue traditionally feminine occupations, and this is seen in civilian life as well.5 While there are more women in the air force and navy than in the army, women’s participation in combat trades across these elements remains extremely marginal.6

Part of culture change work entails “challenging and addressing norms, practices, and attitudes” and while top-down approaches from the institution and leadership are necessary,7 bottom-up and localized approaches are promising and require more attention, time and resources. From DND/CAF’s culture change initiatives, the only seemingly bottom-up initiative is a DND/VAC Military Sexual Trauma (MST) peer support program. While this program is promising, peer support, particularly in the form of mentorship, is necessary beyond a focus on MST to forge and nurture supportive relationships and communities in the CAF that will improve inclusivity.8

Women in the CAF have achieved legal integration by being incorporated into the military as equals to men and with equal access to all occupations. However, social integration, which necessitates the full acceptance of women free from discrimination, has yet to be fully realized.[9] To achieve social integration, the glass floor must be dismantled.


The Glass Floor

Research interviews conducted with 40 Canadian servicewomen uncovered that many women continue to experience gendered barriers and challenges. Several of the research participants continue to feel that they need to “work twice as hard as a man to be considered as good as a man” and struggle to fit in with the “boys’ club” at the CAF.10

The challenges women experience include “the glass ceiling that impedes women’s upward movement and the glass floor that denies them a firm footing.”11 The glass floor is a barrier women face fitting into military culture, particularly in the lower ranks, and especially in operator-type roles. There has been a greater spotlight on women in CAF’s leadership structure12 and less emphasis on women in CAF’s lower ranks, which comprise the majority of CAF members.

The root causes of problematic military culture, which include women’s marginalization and exclusion, are systems of power such as patriarchy, colonialism, white supremacy and heteronormativity. Under patriarchy, masculine characteristics are privileged as opposed to those associated with femininity.13 Men’s dominance in the CAF makes it a patriarchal institution especially considering that the CAF privileges masculinity and has a long history of excluding and discriminating against women whose legal integration was a hard-won battle.14 Looking at it from the bottom up, patriarchy is most visible in the CAF’s boys’ club. The CAF, like other militaries, has a highly masculine culture where “soldiering is seen by those within and outside of the military as something manly, that men do naturally” and while the default soldier may no longer be a man, they continue to be masculine and women who enter the forces are expected to conform to this status quo.15 The boys’ club is one way to keep women marginalized, limit their ability to advance and keep intact the glass floor as a barrier to women’s full integration. Women require a great deal of emotional labour to fit into the CAF’s masculinized culture. Unfortunately, this sometimes includes being confronted with, and becoming complicit in, a great deal of underlying misogyny through horizontal hostility.


Horizontal Hostility

Women’s full integration into the armed forces has been a “crossing into” the “masculine world” where women have to “constantly evaluate both their femininity and their own gender practices while trying to integrate into masculine roles and to be as good as the men.”16 Women may do this in a variety of ways, including the mimicry of combat soldiers’ bodily and discursive practices, distancing from traditional femininity, putting down and distancing themselves from other women and relationships with women and trivializing sexual harassment.17 Horizontal hostility, originally coined in reference to the infighting that occurred between women involved in the women’s movement, is an unexplored area of research when it comes to military women. And women, who are under pressure to survive in an arguably sexist and male-dominated military culture, can scapegoat or discriminate against other women and avoid engaging with them in order to survive the military environment.18 There is an expected standard of “proper femininity” and women judge each other based on these hierarchies, seeing one another as sources of competition or even as threats.19 In a patriarchal institution that values typically masculine traits, women may dismiss other women and even denigrate them, sometimes through violence or aggressive behaviours or attitudes. Likewise, with so few women in the institution, there is a heightened sense of competition and certainly heightened visibility of what women are doing and how they are reacting, to a far greater degree than the visibility of men’s behaviours (such as micro-aggressions or gossiping, for example). Challenging patriarchy, including horizontal hostility, is necessary to break the glass floor and improve inclusivity as well as a supportive CAF culture.



While horizontal hostility exists due to women having to survive in a patriarchal environment, many women find that they share incredible bonds with other women they have worked with in the CAF.[20] Military friendships are among the strongest relationships soldiers form as inclusion in a military unit creates “an uncommonly strong bond between military members” due to the “amount of time spent together, physical and social isolation, the experience of shared risks and the deprivations of deployment.”[21] There are numerous examples of women lifting up other women and amplifying the voices of other women. Most of this work is done informally. To foster a community of support for women in the CAF, I recommend implementing mentorship for women as a culture change initiative from the bottom up.



One of the legacies of women’s historical exclusion and continued marginalization in the CAF is that they have less access to social networks fostered through the boys’ club. Mentorship for women is a potential culture change initiative that could successfully improve inclusivity and foster a supportive environment for women. Mentorship programs offer vast benefits: from psychosocial support and potential career advancement to helping under-represented populations better integrate into workplaces.22 Mentorship is one way for women to foster community and support one another in a culture where they are marginalized. Mentorship can be defined as:

A relationship between two individuals … characterized as being voluntary, developmental, mutually respectful, and even transformational. One individual, the mentor, is more experienced and serves as a coach, cheerleader, confidant, role model, devil’s advocate, and counselor and, when possible, helps open professional opportunities for the less experienced mentee.23

A mentorship relationship can be formal or informal and it has been argued that a mentorship program can help the CAF with recruitment and retention.24 Some mentorship resources for the DND/CAF exist.25 However, the CAF does not currently have a sanctioned formal or informal institution-wide mentoring program for women. Of course, this does not mean that women aren’t actively pursuing mentorship already in informal, bottom-up, localized ways.

Some barriers to mentorship are unique to the CAF. First, there is potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest when mentorship relationships occur within the same chain of command. This could potentially be seen as favouritism, which would not ultimately benefit the women involved. Second, mentoring relationships outside of the chain of command must be “acknowledged and sanctioned by the CAF to address any possible concern of undermining or threat to a unit’s leadership.”26 Likewise, there is some resistance to women-centred mentorship due to patriarchal norms, but also, because the CAF is dominated by men, there are arguments that women must have access to the military hierarchy in ways that benefit their careers, regardless of gender.

Linna Tam-Seto conducted a study called the Framework for Women Mentorship in the Canadian Armed Forces (FWM-CAF) in which she interviewed men and women in the CAF and uncovered some interesting findings. Some women were opposed to women-only mentorship programs, mostly based on gendered stereotypes about women’s personalities:

Relationships between women are often strained relationships because we are very competitive, or I don’t want to use the word petty because I don’t think that that isn’t accurate. But we are competitive in a different way than men are. So, therefore the all-women mentorship program may not be a benefit to some women.27

This participant’s observation is an example of covert horizontal hostility where, in a patriarchal masculinized environment such as the CAF, some women may favour men above other women. A male participant in Tam Seto’s study supported a mentorship program specifically geared toward women when he acknowledged how his gender might be a limitation in appropriately supporting women. He stated:

If we don’t have a network [or] have a mechanism out there [like] mentorship where it’s a priority, women can’t know what other women are going through. And [to be able to] share in a safe manner, share those thoughts, share their problems. If they’re not being led by people who get what they’re going through, at the end of the day, it’s a silo of women [who are] not going to work. We [will have] missed an opportunity. [As a man], I acknowledge my blind spots that there’s a lot that I just simply don’t understand and I’ll never understand and not to be defeatist but there’s limits of what I can comprehend and what I’ll experience.28

Bearing in mind the CAF’s many cultures, differences among elements exist. Tam-Seto quotes a research participant who discussed perceived differences between the navy and army and how these differences may inform mentoring relationships:

So, the Navy is very hierarchal, very traditional, a little bit stodgy… I guess the same things could be said about the Army. I find the Army … gave a bit more autonomy to people. They expect younger people to take action. It’s not as rigid as ‘you shall do this position before you progress.’ I think the Navy … [has a] little bit more of a class structure whereas the Army … their officers die in the field with their soldiers and so the comradery is a little bit different and a little bit more familiar.29

Another of Tam-Seto’s participants stated:

So, the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force are different elements. Now this is also the world according to me. I have known that when I tried to talk to my friends who are in the Navy before and then after switching to the Army, they were like I don’t get it. [They would say], I don’t know why that’s a problem or why the Navy doesn’t have ‘forced fun’ the same way the Army. There are certain expectations that when you get into the Army, you’re not supposed to leave the nest until the most senior officer has left the nest. Or you have to shake their hand before leaving. These are all rules that are not written in any bloody book. They’re not there but somehow, you’re just supposed know and as you switch to the different elements that [there is someone] that can help you navigate. That’s when I look at mentoring. That is kind of navigating through the folklore. It’s stuff that’s not in the book so you’re relying already on the person to person to help navigate that piece, right?30

We can see that intra-military differences may also contribute to the need for mentorship and must be considered for mentorship matchmaking.31

One aspect of the CAF that distinguished it from other employers is how, as a total institution,32 CAF members often have a deep sense of loyalty to it. In this way, many ascribe to a sense of militaryhood or a “we are all green” mentality. Similarly, as women have been discriminated against for so long, post-feminist or even anti-feminist beliefs held by women and men are not uncommon.33 Gendered perceptions, stereotypes and experiences are not one-dimensional. Neither women nor men in the CAF are homogenous and any mentorship program must include intersectionality at its core to account for the various and complex life experiences shaped by identity factors such as sexuality, race, class and ability. Most importantly, for mentorship to thrive, or even exist, there must be a work culture that sees the benefits and seeks to foster it by dedicating time and resources to doing so. Mentorship for women should not be seen as an “extra-curricular,”34 but rather as a necessary culture change initiative.



To facilitate culture change from the bottom up, combat patriarchal and sexist discrimination against women, including dismantling the glass floor, the CAF should prioritize a women’s mentorship initiative. Mentorship for women can foster supportive individual relationships and a larger community of support. However, beyond using mentorship as a tool for recruitment, retention and perhaps even operational effectiveness, the CAF should support bottom-up mentorship initiatives for the sake of equity above all else. Tam-Seto’s FWM-CAF provides an excellent starting point for how to successfully initiate and integrate women’s mentorship in the CAF. She describes the elements required to successfully formalize mentorships or at least establish a culture where mentorship is supported. Beyond needing mentors and mentees, mentorship training is recommended, as is a strategy for matching mentors and mentees that considers comparability and collaboration, and guidelines for how mentorship relationships may work.[35] Although culture change initiatives are underway, CAF members are not yet feeling tangible everyday action on the ground. Dedicated material support that goes beyond lip service for bottom-up, localized, participatory approaches, such as mentorship, should be implemented as soon as possible.


End Notes

1 Department of National Defence, “Conduct and Culture Change Progress Tracker,” 2023. Retrieved from:

2 Ryan Melanson, “Conduct and Culture Leader Says, ‘Culture is Every One of Us,’” Lookout, March 1, 2023,

3 Department of National Defence, Minister of National Defence Advisory Panel on Systemic Racism and Discrimination with a Focus on Anti-Indigenous and Anti-Black Racism, LGBTQ2+ Prejudice, Gender Bias, and White Supremacy, 2022.

4 CPCC along with an external contractor led the defence team conduct and culture consultation. The summary report includes a cultural pillar analysis and demonstrates strengths and limits of four cultural pillars: service before self, warrior identity, leadership and teamwork. A few “limiting mindsets” uncovered include mission first, people last; warrior identity promotes toxic and aggressive behaviours; leadership leaves no place to ask questions or propose ideas; and there is an emphasis on conformity and exclusion of those who don’t fit the mould.

5 A. Lane, “Women in the Canadian Armed Forces,” in Canadian Defence Policy in Theory and Practice, T. Juneau, P. Lagassé and S. Vucetic, eds., (Springer, 2019): 351–364. 

6 Ibid.

7 C. Duval-Lantoine, “Comprehensive Culture Change in the CAF: From Buzzword to Actionable Items,” CGAI, 2022,

8 The Positive Space Program, which predates CPCC and focuses on work-related matters and issues experienced by members of the two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (2SLGBTQI+) communities, is a promising example of a more localized, grassroots initiative approach to culture change.

9 D. Winslow and J. Dunn, “Women in the Canadian Forces: Between Legal and Social Integration, Current Sociology, 50(5), (2002): 642.

10  See S. Biskupski-Mujanovic, “The ‘Lucky Ones’ and Those That Weren’t: Sexual Misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 28 (2), (2022): 144–169; N. Taber, “‘You Better Not Get Pregnant While You’re Here’: Tensions Between Masculinities and Femininities in Military Communities of Practice,” International Journal of Lifelong Education, 30(3), (2011): 331–348; Ibid., “The Canadian Armed Forces: Battling between Operation HONOUR and Operation Hop on Her,” Critical Military Studies, 6(1), (2017): 19–40; B. Waruszynski, K. MacEachern, S. Raby, M. Straver, E. Ouellet  and E. Makadi, “Women Serving in the Canadian Armed Forces: Strengthening Military Capabilities and Operational Effectiveness,” Canadian Military Journal, 19(2), (2019): 24–33.

11 P. McCristall and J. Baggaley, “The Progressions of a Gendered Military: A Theoretical Examination of Gender Inequality in the Canadian Military,” Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 5 (1), (2019): 121.

12 Department of National Defence (DND) and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), “Implementation Plan: Department of National Defence/Canadian Armed Forces and Women, Peace and Security.”

13 M. Eichler and V. Brown, “Getting to the Root of the Problem: Understanding and Changing Canadian Military Culture,” Working paper, Transforming Military Cultures (TMC) Network, 2023.

14 C. Duval-Lantoine, The Ones We Let Down: Toxic Leadership Culture and Gender Integration in the Canadian Forces, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022).

15 A. Lane, “Special Men: The Gendered Militarization of the Canadian Armed Forces,” International Journal, 74(4), (2017):  470–471.

16 A. Harel-Shalev, E. Huss, S. Daphna-Tekoah and J. Cwikel, “Drawing (on) Women’s Military Experiences and Narratives: Israeli Women Soldiers’ Challenges in the Military Environment,” Gender, Place and Culture, 24(4), (2017): 495.

17 O. Sasson-Levy, “Gender Performance in a Changing Military: Women Soldiers in ‘Masculine’ Roles,” Israeli Studies Forum, 17(1), (2001): 11.

18 V. Meade, “Embracing Diverse Women Veteran Narratives: Intersectionality and Women Veterans’ Identity,” Journal of Veterans Studies, 6(3), (2020): 49.

19 C. Enloe, Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2016): 93.

20 S. Biskupski-Mujanovic, “Women in the Canadian Armed Forces: At Home and Abroad,” Dissertation, Western University, 2022.

21 M. Mahat-Shamir, K. Lebowitz and Y. Hamama-Raz, “‘You Did Not Desert Me My Brothers in Arms’: The Continuing Bond Experience of Men Who Have Lost a Brother in Arms,” Death Studies 45 (2), (2020): 415.

22 L. Tam-Seto and B. Imre-Millei, “Scoping Review of Mentorship Programs for Women in the Military,” Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 8 (1) (2022).

23 Ibid., 18.

24 L. Tam-Seto, “Framework for Women Mentorship in the Canadian Armed Forces (FWM-CAF),” Martello Paper 44, Centre for International and Defence Policy, (2023): 29.

25 See for example, Canadian Army, “Mentorship,” (2017). Retrieved from: and D. Lagace-Roy, Mentoring Handbook, Department of National Defence, (2007). Retrieved from:; See also L.Tam-Seto, (2023): 59.

26 Tam-Seto, 39.

27 Ibid., 45 .

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., 47.

30 Ibid., 38.

31 Ibid.

32 A “total institution” is one where members often live, work, eat and access health care on bases. This type of institution departs from past social arrangements as members are treated alike, required to do the same things together, and there are officials who impose rules on the majority. See Davies, 1089.

33 S. Biskupski-Mujanovic, Dissertation, (2022).

34 Tam Seto, (2023): 47.

35 Ibid., 55–56.


About the Author

Sandra Biskupski-Mujanovic is a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Waterloo Political Science Department and the Balsillie School of International Affairs. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies from Western University with a specialization in Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction. Her current and previous research is on gendered experiences in the Canadian Armed Forces.


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