Academic journal article Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

Leadership Considerations and Lessons Learned in a Mixed Gender Environment

Academic journal article Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

Leadership Considerations and Lessons Learned in a Mixed Gender Environment

Article excerpt

A military force in which mutual respect, trust, and loyalty are lacking is not an effective force, it is a hollow shell, nothing more than a gang of individuals, lacking cohesion and common purpose, each acting alone and looking out for his or her own interests.

General Baril, CDS, letter dated 9 June 1998

The integration of women into the Canadian Forces, and in particular into the combat arms, is an important and emotional initiative that the Canadian Forces have embarked upon. Since the opening of all our military occupations (except submarine service) to women in 1989, it is clear that the culture of our forces has not been completely conducive to accepting that service by women in the combat arms is either feasible or desirable. In some cases this culture has resulted in a leadership environment that, if it did not actively resist integration, certainly did not support it. Consequently, the proportion of women in our armed forces has only marginally improved in the last ten years.

That does not mean we have accomplished little. We have learned a great deal in the process of integrating women and are adapting our training programs as a result. Let us examine some of the lessons learned.

Lesson 1 -- Leadership Attitudes

The most fundamental lesson the Canadian Forces has learned in integrating women is that the greatest threats to combat effectiveness, cohesion, and morale in mixed gender units are the attitudes of the leaders and their subsequent overt and covert behaviour toward women in military units. That poses a greater threat than any sex differences in ability or strength. Where leadership failed to adapt, unit performance has decreased and individuals have suffered.

Almost every negative issue associated with gender integration has its roots in inappropriate leadership. For some individuals gender integration is an extreme cultural change they simply cannot handle. Their fear and discomfort with this issue is real and it is visible to the troops. This discomfort clouds their ability to command and make sound decisions. There is no set rule for which leaders will be uncomfortable with this issue. It is not just the "long in the tooth" crowd that may be unable to adapt to this cultural change.

How a unit feels about gender integration ultimately flows from the attitude exhibited by the commanding officer. If the commanding officer exhibits and ensures a positive but no-nonsense approach, this will manifest itself throughout the unit. Historically, commanding officers that exhibit this attitude have few gender integration problems. Gender integration is only a problem for units if commanding officers make it one from the very start.

Selecting and educating commanding officers is of prime importance. This does not mean teaching or advocating a different approach to leadership. The nature of leadership does not change when diverse groups of men and women serve together. The personal qualities and leadership principles that have always been successful still apply. However, all leaders require more information. They not only need to be competent in basic leadership skills, they need to learn how to apply those skills competently and comfortably when the service members in their charge include both men and women. Further, they should have an understanding of the particular challenges of mixed gender groups and have developed plans to cope with them.

The remaining lessons learned are devoted to the challenges and lessons we have learned from mixed gender groups.

Lesson 2 -- Unit Cohesion And Teamwork

Unit cohesion is commonly brought up as a concern in mixed gender units. Tools used to promote team cohesion in an all male unit are not easily transferred to a mixed gender environment. People are drawn to likeness. Service members who sound, look, and think alike, generate greater trust and comfort than those who are different. …

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