Reflections of a Woman Leading
in a Man’s World
The title started as “Reflections of a Woman Leading in a Man’s World.” It did not sit well with me. It made me squirm a little as I do not actually feel that it is a man’s world. I kept it as a place marker while I tried to muddle through my thoughts on why I have been dedicating so much of my time as of late reflecting upon my career, gender integration, and leadership in general. As I reached the end of this article, a new title emerged.
If you are reading this, you already know that my background is in the military. To be more specific, I am an Artillery Officer, and for those unfamiliar with the artillery, it is one of the combat arms within the Canadian Army. I served in the Regular Force from 1994 – 2016, and have remained in the Reserve Force on a part time basis since then. When I did my basic training and my occupational training in the mid to late 1990’s, I was one of very few women. When I arrived at my first unit, there had only been one female officer before me. I wasn’t “the first” in any of my experiences, I wasn’t “the best” on any of my courses, but I was one of the early females in the combat arms who consistently did reasonably well. Did I feel some pressure? Did I have to deal with some antiquated views? Did I have to contend with inappropriate behavior? Yes, in some small measure. But if anyone were to ask me about my career and my experiences in the military, I would say that I have been very well treated, and I have worked with some fantastic people of all backgrounds, and I have been afforded opportunities that I would have been hard pressed to find in the civilian world. I have had a good career. However, there is one moment that stands out where I felt extremely insulted on the basis of my gender, and that was with the release of the Deschamps Report. Sadly ironic.
Though I felt slighted by the manner in which Madame Deschamps categorized female senior officers, it is not my intent to dismiss her findings. I am not so naive to believe that the Canadian Armed Forces, like any other organization, cannot benefit from a concerted effort to reinforce the need for a respectful workplace, void of harassment, and promote an environment that is reflective of our ethos. But in the same way that I left the interview room with Madame Deschamps angry and frustrated, I dislike reading the report because it is not reflective of my experiences. Again, there is a huge difference between saying it does not reflect my experiences, and saying it is inaccurate or categorically false. I believe what is most infuriating is that she has effectively silenced this group of women. By implying female senior officers have developed some sort of coping mechanism that blinds us to the problems, she has called into question our credibility to speak out on the issues. How can that be considered progress when it comes to gender integration?
I recently became engaged with the Defence Woman’s Advisory Group. I silently observed discussions within the group for a while, not sure how I could contribute, but eventually shared my perspective. My comments were lengthy, but centered on a few key points:
- In my professional capacity, I never wanted my gender to be a factor in my employment, or a descriptor of who I am.
- That all of the systemic issues I could think of within the Canadian Armed Forces were not woman’s issues, but issues that affected all genders.
- Addressing systemic issues as if they only pertain to one gender is shortsighted and doing a disservice to the entire organization as it fails to acknowledge the significant impact it can have on all of the employees.
My views center around the expression, “If it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander.” I have never thought that I could not do something because I was a woman, and that has influenced how I look at problems.
Feedback and responses to my comments were overwhelmingly positive, but there was the odd concern expressed, from a friend that I quite respect in one instance, that my comments were potentially counter-productive to the purpose of the group. It was suggested that perhaps I was overwhelming the group, or that my voice was too strong. Suffice to say, it has prompted a level of introspection that I have not experienced before. That friend suggested I read the book Lean in: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. I have, and found it to be a difficult read. The author has made some outstanding points and observations that I agree with, can relate to and endorse, but it still made me uncomfortable. Scattered throughout the book is an underlying tone of “women are taught from a young age….,” and I could not relate to that, at all. Taught by who? How? Is this still true? Have I been living under a rock? I mean, I grew up on the rock, otherwise known as Newfoundland, in a household where the gender stereotypes were alive and well with a stay at home mother who catered to all of our needs, but it never even remotely dawned on me that I was supposed to conform to that stereotype.
Was Madame Deschamps correct in her assessment, had I been brainwashed? Was I part of the problem? Another friend of mine, a trail blazer in her own right, pointed me to the article “The Female Combat Soldier” by Anthony King that talks about women who are accepted into male dominated fields as being considered “honorary men.” I have found that to be an interesting read, and it too has caused me to reflect and question my perspective, personal bias and experiences. But at the end of the day, I keep circling back to the same stance on things that seems to be somewhat contradictory in nature.
I believe in equal opportunity for all. I believe diversity makes us stronger. I want to see more women in senior leadership positions. However, I do not think that 50/50 representation of the genders is the only metric to measure equality or diversity. I am a woman and identify as a woman. But who I am as a person has been influenced by many things, of which one is my gender. The assumption that just because I am a female means certain things about me is wrong. Just because my gender (or religion, or race) may give the appearance of diversity, it does not necessarily mean my views are that diverse from those of my brothers who were also raised in the same environment as me. We are people. We have different experiences, cultures, challenges, personalities, education and interests. When we embrace that, and stop making assumptions or labeling people on the basis of one visible aspect of who they are, we will be a whole lot better off. I guess that makes me more of a humanist. “I’m a woman, hear me roar,”? No. How about, “I’m Jen Causey, and I have something to say.”