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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 21, No. 3, Summer 2021]
Personnel Issues

DND photo WT07-2019-0013-005 by Private Jordyn Anderson

Reservist from 38 Brigade Group’s Influence Activities Company conducts patrols and executes key leader engagements during Exercise MAPLE RESOLVE 19, 11 May 2019.

Dr. Barbara Waruszynski, DSocSci., is a Defence Scientist with Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis (DGMPRA), Department of National Defence (DND), and she specializes in diversity and inclusion research for the advancement of Defence and Security. Barbara is the project leader for two studies that looked at the attraction, recruitment and employment of women serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. Specifically, she is looking at ways to improve recruitment strategies and the military culture to enable greater diversity and inclusion in the Canadian military.

Kate Hill MacEachern, MA, is a Ph.D. candidate at Carleton University, and has worked with DGMPRA in DND, supporting projects related to diversity and inclusion in the Canadian Armed Forces. Kate is currently an epidemiologist with the Public Health Agency of Canada.


Strengthening Canada’s military capacity and capabilities to address modern-day conflict requires personnel from the Primary Reserve to work alongside the Regular Force in meeting operational challenges, both domestically and abroad. In helping to augment the capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), Primary Reserve members, primarily across the Naval Reserve, Canadian Army Reserve, Royal Canadian Air Force Reserve, Military Personnel Command Reserve, and Canadian Special Operations Forces Command Reserve,Footnote 1 are ready to respond if and when needed. The Primary Reserve is instrumental in supporting the Regular Force by responding to humanitarian challenges, both domestically (i.e., natural disaster emergencies) and in international operations. It is within this context that we examine women’s lived experiences of serving in the Canadian Primary Reserve. Specifically, the purpose of this article is to explore the challenges and opportunities associated with being a woman in the Primary Reserve. To better understand these challenges and opportunities, a qualitative study conducted by Waruszynski and MacEachern (2019) examined the attraction, recruitment, employment, and retention of women in the Primary Reserve.Footnote 2 Through the use of focus groups and individual interviews, the researchers were able to take note of the lived experiences of women serving in the CAF Primary Reserve. These participants also provided suggestions on how the CAF could increase the representation of women and thereby foster a more integrated, diverse, and inclusive Canadian military to further strengthen its defence capabilities and operational effectiveness.

Reservists Strengthening Military Capacity and Capabilities for Enhanced Operational Effectiveness

The current defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, highlights the important role of Canadian Reservists:

The Canadian Armed Forces is greatly enhanced by being able to employ the varied backgrounds and skills of Reservists. The prevalence of Reserve units across Canada, including in major urban centres, makes them extremely valuable as a means to tap into Canadian diversity, capitalizing on different ways of thinking and problem solving, and accessing the deep cultural knowledge resident in Canadian communities. Reservists bring a wealth of experience from their primary occupations that has allowed the Canadian Armed Forces to access in-demand skills and trades…that would otherwise take years to develop in the Regular Force.Footnote 3

Currently, women represent 16.1% of the total force with 16.8% in the Primary Reserve.Footnote 4 By 2026, the CAF’s intent is to increase the representation of women in the Canadian military to approximately 25%.Footnote 5 Although women have been involved with major conflicts throughout Canada’s history (see Waruszynski, MacEachern, Raby, Straver, Ouellet, & Makadi, 2019),Footnote 6 it was not until the 1970s that women were given greater opportunities to serve as members of the CAF. In 1988, women represented 17.9% of the Primary Reserve.Footnote 7 Representation was highest in the Naval Reserve (37.6%), followed by the Communication Reserve (35.1%), Air Reserve (28.5%) and the Militia (12.3%).Footnote 8

The appeal of a military career is relatively universal. Both men and women, who are in the Primary Reserve or Regular Force, seek opportunities to serve their country and to pursue a challenging and adventurous career.Footnote 9,Footnote 10,Footnote 11 However, there are specific reasons why individuals may choose a career in the Primary Reserve over the Regular Force. For example, Defence scientist J. Anderson (2018) discovered that the Primary Reserve provided an opportunity to try-out the military, while others wanted the opportunity to learn new skills, or to stay in shape through continuous exercising. Moreover, familiarity with the military has been found to be an important part of attraction and recruitment, and this appears to hold for people wanting to join the Primary Reserve. According to Anderson (2018), two-thirds of Primary Reserve members had family or friends who were serving members of the CAF.Footnote 12

DND photo 20200814NKAD0266D029 by Corporal David Veldman

Able Seaman Ashtyn Bartlett drives a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat through Maniitsoq Fjord during Operation NANOOK 2020, 14 August 2020.

One of the most positive aspects of joining the Primary Reserve is the ability to have more control over making decisions related to family/work-life balance. The Primary Reserve offers more flexible options for those who prefer to work part-time in the Canadian military, but not as a full-time service member. For example, the employment terms for a reservist do not require an extended commitment. For those working part-time in the Army Reserve, the occupational opportunities are varied, and the investment required is typically one night a week and one weekend a month.Footnote 13 In addition, the variability in occupations is important (i.e., paramedics, nurses, doctors, and dentists, as health-related occupations have been listed as top fields of interest for women in the Canadian public).Footnote 14 It may be worthwhile to highlight these types of occupations to the public to appeal to women who may be unfamiliar with the CAF.

There are many who benefit from the opportunity to be employed part-time with the Canadian military. For example, students who are enlisted in the Primary Reserve are able to work part-time during the school year and then have full-time summer employment. Also, the Primary Reserve is an option for individuals wanting part-time employment in smaller communities where opportunities may be limited. The pay and working conditions are potentially better than what is available in small communities, where other options might include fast-food or big-box retailers. In addition, the training and ability to develop unique skillsets can aid in professional development and future employment opportunities.

The Primary Reserve is also appealing for women who want to be a part of the military, but also require the flexibility to control their schedules and their geographic locations. Women who prefer to remain close to family and friends, or who need to take care of their children while remaining employed can find a good balance between work commitments and family life. Such flexibility would also be relevant for spouses of Regular Force members who choose to remain with their families when moving to a new city, or if they need to maintain a connection to the CAF.Footnote 15

Issues Affecting Women in the Primary Reserve

The key findings of this qualitative study are based upon the perceptions of 168 women in the Primary Reserve* who work in several bases/units across Canada, including Ottawa, Bagotville, Trenton, Montreal, Quebec City, Edmonton, Vancouver, Halifax, and Winnipeg. Some of the central issues raised by participants were consistent with previous research with women in the Regular Force.Footnote 16 This is not unexpected, as members of the Regular Force and Primary Reserve work in the same environments, carry out similar tasks/jobs, and may have the same colleagues and supervisors.

* Two female participants were from the Regular Force but provided suggestions on how to improve the recruitment of women in the Primary Reserve.

The key areas that are discussed next include: (a) motivation to join the CAF and reactions to joining; (b) experiences with recruiters and the recruitment process; (c) the masculinized culture of the CAF; (d) issues in military training; and (e) concerns over kit and equipment.

Motivation to join the CAF and reactions to joining: In general, many participants spoke about several motivating factors to join the CAF, including: opportunity to experience new adventures, travel around the world, undergo challenges, pride in wearing the Canadian military uniform, ability to give something of themselves to help people around the world, and the benefits of job security and subsidized education. As noted in the study on women in the Regular Force,Footnote 17 family and friends were primarily great supporters of the women joining the Primary Reserve, especially if the people who supported them came from military backgrounds.

Experiences with recruiters and the recruitment process: The majority of participants articulated positive experiences with the recruiters and the recruitment process; however, some of the participants felt that the recruitment process was too long. Several participants also stated that the recruiting staff seemed at times uninformed about the occupations, disinterested in their role as recruiters, and lacked female recruiters to help answer female-oriented questions. These findings parallel those in the Regular Force study,Footnote 18 including the lack of qualified female recruiters and the ability of recruiters to speak to issues impacting women in the military.

The masculinized culture of the CAF: Working in a masculinized culture subjected some women to harassment, discrimination, and even sexual assault, similar to the findings in the Regular Force study.Footnote 19 The military culture was described as an “old boys club,” with many women experiencing harassment, including inappropriate comments and jokes. Some spoke with frustration about Operation HONOUR and how the program was treated by male colleagues, where some of the men viewed Operation HONOUR as a program for women.

Women in the Primary Reserve study raised concerns about the potentially triggering nature of Operation HONOUR presentations, particularly for women who had experienced sexual harassment or assault in the past. This perspective is important as it speaks to the need to ensure that all members feel psychologically safe in their work environments. Overall, women in the Primary ReserveFootnote 20 and Regular ForceFootnote 21 suggested that Operation HONOUR is a step in the right direction to help eliminate sexual misconduct in the military, but the program may need further evaluation to ensure it is effective in addressing sexual misconduct and encouraging real change in attitudes and behaviours.

Issues in military training: Specifically related to women in the Combat Arms, some of the participants expressed issues with certain male instructors who were perceived as being unprepared to integrate women into combat units. Participants highlighted that there are some instructors who adjust their expectations and assessments based upon the anatomy of female members (i.e., perceptions that women are less likely to succeed in infantry training due to their smaller height and body size).

Concerns over kit and equipment: Another common theme was the concern with respect to one’s military kit and equipment. This issue was raised over 20 years ago,Footnote 22 and raised again more recently by members of the Regular Force.Footnote 23 The key concern is that the uniforms, rucksacks, and safety equipment are made for an average male body type and do not necessarily fit a woman’s body type. This implies that women are wearing ill-fitted safety equipment or gear that may be too big and uncomfortable, placing physical safety at risk, and in some cases, causing physical injury.

DND photo CX04-2017-0276-065 by Master Seaman Roxanne Wood

Captain Skye Simpson flies a CC-130J Hercules on approach to landing in Kamloops, BC, during Operation LENTUS 17-04, 21 July 2017.

Perceptions Unique to Primary Reservists

Many participants in the Primary Reserve study felt that they were not always viewed as an integral part of the CAF, despite performing the same work and having similar responsibilities as Regular Force members. Several participants stated that, often, they did not want to identify as being Primary Reservists because they felt it would change how Regular Force members would treat them. Much of this centered upon the perceived lack of respect for the Primary Reserve. For some, this was reinforced by the fact that they earned less pay and had fewer benefits.

In a similar vein, there were a number of participants who spoke about wanting to be members of the Regular Force, but were “…unwilling to relinquish control of their lives to the military.” Many had started out in the Regular Force but left due to family commitments, or did not want to leave their geographical locations. This is an important point for the CAF to consider. Women are still primarily responsible for household responsibilities including child care (i.e., taking care of sick children, booking medical appointments, etc.) and often must make career sacrifices in order to maintain family commitments.

Relatedly, some women also joined the Primary Reserve so that they could follow their military Regular Force spouses/partners without fear of separation, or be able to obtain employment in a new location. There are two perspectives to consider with this point. First, there are women who want to be part of the Regular Force, but are restricted by their desire to put family demands first. Understanding how to better serve this element could lead to greater retention in the CAF. Second, spouses/partners of Regular Force members may represent valuable candidates for recruitment into the Primary Reserve.

Many participants wanted greater opportunities to work with the Primary Reserve on a full-time basis, but indicated that the positions or contracts were not available. It was felt by these participants that the CAF should perhaps consider its current members and how best to utilize the talent available to enhance retention. Relatedly, there were many concerns attributed to the perception of recruiting more women in order to meet the representation goals for women in the CAF. As in the Regular Force study,Footnote 24 women in the Primary Reserve expressed deep concern over recruiting more women simply because of their gender as opposed to their merit, knowledge, skills and abilities. Despite these concerns, it was also felt that efforts to recruit more women into the CAF is an acknowledgement that Canada, and its international partners, would be better served by a military that is representative of its population.

DND photo LG2006-0754d by Corporal Bill Gomm

Second Lieutenant Gillian Bida of The Saskatchewan Dragoons, in the turret of a G-Wagon, watches for suspicious movement during Exercise WAGONS WEST.

The Way Ahead

Participants in the Primary Reserve study put forward several key suggestions on how to improve the current culture in the military. These suggestions include: (a) foster an inclusive culture; (b) educate others on the Primary Reserve and associated benefits; (c) promote family-friendly policies; and (d) recognize best-fit recruiters.

Foster an inclusive culture: One of the most important suggestions for the CAF is to focus on changing the masculinized culture. Participants highlighted the need to focus on public messaging that the CAF culture is trying to change its image by accentuating greater respect, trust, and dignity for all. This was also highlighted in the Regular Force study,Footnote 25 where participants focused on the need to promote and communicate values of mutual respect, trust, diversity, better integration, leadership, and a safe culture.

Educate others on the Primary Reserve and associated benefits: The Primary Reserve provides an excellent opportunity for members of the Canadian population to engage with the military without the full-time commitment of a military career. Highlighting the benefits of pursuing this part-time opportunity is a force multiplier for attracting all members of the population. Notwithstanding, there are features that may be uniquely appealing to women who are focusing upon family-related concerns (i.e., child care commitments). Participants also expressed the importance of emphasizing benefits received in the Primary Reserve, whether through part-time (i.e., Class A) or full-time (i.e., Class B) employment.

Promote family-friendly policies: Participants felt that there was a need to promote how the CAF is helping members to address their family-related needs through changing family policies for both men and women in the CAF. This aspect remains an integral component for women serving in both the Primary Reserve and Regular Force.

Recognize best-fit recruiters: Participants stressed the importance of getting best-fit recruiters who are knowledgeable about the Primary Reserve, and have a good understanding of the different occupations offered by the CAF. Participants highlighted the value of having knowledgeable female recruiters who are able to answer female-specific questions. Participants suggested that excellence in recruiting practices needs to be recognized/acknowledged through more formal processes (i.e., RCAF Commander’s Commendations or Recruiter of the Year Award).


The foregoing study provides a window into the lived experiences of women serving in the Canadian Primary Reserve. This article addressed several general areas impacting reservists, including: (a) their motivation to join the CAF and reactions to joining; (b) their experiences with recruiters and the recruitment process; (c) the masculinized culture of the CAF; (d) issues in military training; and (e) concerns over kit and equipment. It also examined some of the unique issues impacting women working in the Primary Reserve. Several suggestions were put forward by the participants to help address the need to increase the representation of women in the Primary Reserve, including: (a) foster an inclusive culture; (b) educate others on the Primary Reserve and associated benefits; (c) promote family-friendly policies; and (d) recognize best-fit recruiters. The participants also highlighted that recruiting highly skilled women and men will help to strengthen military capacity and capabilities for enhanced operational effectiveness. As the defence policy reiterates: “To continue to benefit from all the strengths of Canadian society and be successful in a highly competitive labour market, the Reserve Force will dramatically improve the recruitment process to ensure it is agile, flexible and responsive in meeting the needs of those who serve Canada through the Reserves.”Footnote 26

DND photo by Corporal Geneviève Beaulieu

A Naval Reservist changes shift at the Manoir-de-Verdun long-term care centre in Verdun, Quebec, during Operation LASER, 3 May 2020.

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