POLITICS

Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, top female general, says recruiting women a 'difficult road'

07/23/2015 07:57 EDT | Updated 07/23/2016 05:59 EDT
Lt.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, the military's top female general, says recruiting more women to the Canadian Forces will be a "difficult road," especially in the wake of intense publicity around sexual harassment in its ranks.

The current targets require the military to strive to have women represent 25 per cent of those in uniform. The latest figures from the military show that they are well short of that goal as just under 15 per cent of officers are women.

"One in four is a big number," Whitecross said in an exclusive interview with Rosemary Barton, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics. "There isn't a nation in the world that does it. The NATO average right now is 10 per cent. So, we're over 10 per cent. Is that good enough? No it's not." 

Whitecross, who was promoted from major-general to lieutenant-general on May 26, and now serves as chief of military personnel, stopped short of saying she'd push to lower recruitment targets. "We will have to look at it closely. But we have to exhaust all avenues before we do that." 

Gen. Tom Lawson, who stepped down last Friday as chief of the defence staff, has previously called the 25 per cent target "unrealistic."

Documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen last year showed the Armed Forces were pushing to cut the target for women from 25.1 per cent to 17.6 per cent. It also wanted to lower the targets for visible minorities from 11.7 per cent to 8.2 per cent, and for aboriginals from 3.3 per cent to 2.6 per cent.

Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada, and an expert on diversity in the Armed Forces, told CBC News in an interview that the Forces have been trying to boost the number of women in uniform for 25 years.

"The best we can do is 15 per cent? Does this look like an organization that's really trying hard to recruit women? I'd say not. It's doing what it can so it doesn't get in trouble [with the Canadian Human Rights Commission]," Leuprecht said. But he admits that Canada has a leg up over most of our allies, where the number of female soldiers is even lower. 

"The bad press [around sexual harassment] won't help at all with recruitment. That's going to have a seriously challenging effect on recruitment overall, among both men and women."

'They're the daughters of soldiers'

Leuprecht said the military should completely revamp its recruiting program and reach out to women who do not have an existing connection with the Armed Forces.

"The women who do show up are, overwhelmingly, already familiar with the Armed Forces. They're the daughters of soldiers. They've been in the reserves. The Canadian Forces have this huge challenge of connecting with women in the general population. The top military brass has to let women know that they're safe and that the army is a good employer." 

Retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, who issued a damning report on sexual misconduct in the military earlier this year, said that increasing the number of women in uniform, particularly among the top brass, is essential for addressing sexual misconduct.

"There is an undeniable link," Deschamps wrote in her report, "between the existence of negative and discriminatory attitudes toward women in the Canadian Armed Forces, the low representation of women in senior positions in the organization, and the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault." 

Leuprecht said boosting the representation of women in positions of power is a start. "You can only change the rules and regulations so many times. What ultimately needs to change is the institutional culture and that means getting more women in senior leadership positions but also among those folks who are out leading the troops on the ground, the captains and the majors." 

Deschamps pointed to Australia, where more than 18 per cent of all officers are women, as a model. "This places [Australia] somewhat ahead of the Canadian Armed Forces, and indicates that increasing the representation of women officers in senior positions in a military organization is possible," Deschamps wrote. 

"The military can, and has changed, in the past," Leuprecht said. "Today half of the officer corps are Francophones. That wasn't always the case." 

"It we want to make progress, it's not going to happen overnight, and it does require committed and concerted effort by the organizations. I would say the efforts so far have been haphazard and half-hearted at best."