05/25/2012 03:09 EDT | Updated 07/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian women in combat roles bring their experiences to Australia

OTTAWA - Col. Jennie Carignan figures she covered 10,000 kilometres of bomb-riddled, dusty roads in Afghanistan as a combat engineer.

That's 10,000 kilometres of the already long route that she and other women have travelled since 2001 as they entered all corners of the Canadian Forces — an accomplishment that sets Canada apart.

Carignan and three other military colleagues just returned from a two-week trip to Australia, where they described their experiences in the combat trades to their counterparts. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) will take down the last barriers to women in combat areas in January.

This week, two women sued the American military for continuing to bar women from frontline combat on the simple basis of their sex.

"The (main) lesson learned from our integration adventure is that operational effectiveness is only related to leadership and the actions of the leader," said Carignan, who also served in the Golan Heights and Bosnia.

"We had this twisted around, and this was another message we had for the ADF: Operational effectiveness has nothing to do with the gender of the folks composing your force."

Carignan travelled across Australia, from training centres to cadet facilities, and says women there were delighted to hear some of her anecdotes and the message that combat roles were indeed "possible."

The Canadian Forces now have women in some of the most senior, and some of the most dangerous jobs — navy divers and bomb disposal experts, to name just two.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay says the position of women in the Canadian military in inspiring.

"Canadians and Australians are very like-minded, but a number of other countries have really seen Canada as the gold standard when it comes to how women are treated in the forces, their advancement, their promotion to leadership positions," MacKay said in interview.

One story Carignan likes to share to demonstrate the early challenges in changing the military's culture recalls when she applied for her first engineering posting. A military career manager complained she was an "administrative problem" because of the fact she was married.

Her husband, who had visited the same manager on the same day, had received the opposite reaction — married male soldiers are viewed positively.

"This was the choice that was put in front of you: You either remain single and have a good career or you get married and don't have a career," said Carignan, a mother of four who is currently the chief of staff of the land forces central area headquarters in Toronto.

"This has changed quite a bit over the past few years and I, of course, never accepted that choice because I wanted to have both of them, like any of the other male colleagues who were serving."

The reticence of some countries to include women in combat roles is based on several false assumptions rooted in emotion rather than data, says Carignan.

The first is that women aren't hard-wired to participate in violence.

"You go through training together as a team and you learn how to apply your rules of engagement and you train in that field," she says. "When you get into a tense situation, your training kicks in. Application of violence is a completely gender neutral concept."

Another belief is that women aren't physically or mentally strong enough to cope with the rigours of combat — a notion the British government emphasized when they upheld the ban on women in frontline combat two years ago.

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."

And then there's the perception that the public won't accept women dying on the battlefield. Capt. Nichola Goddard's death in Afghanistan in 2006 received significant attention, but at the time she was also only the 16th Canadian soldier killed in combat during the mission.

Afghanistan was the first war that Canadian women served in combat roles.

"Really, I find it quite offensive that we would think that losing a woman in combat is worse than losing a man," says Carignan. "Losing a soldier is a tragedy, period, regardless of the gender."

MacKay says having women in all aspects of the military isn't just a matter of equality, but can also bring benefits. He cites the example of Afghan girls and women who watched as Canadian women protected them and sometimes commanded male soldiers.

"I think there is nothing more vivid than that actual example that's being set by our women in the military," said MacKay.

Canada removed restrictions to women holding combat arms occupations in 1989, with the exception of service on submarines. That last restriction was lifted in 2001.