Women in the Canadian Armed Forces

Backgrounder / March 6, 2014 / Project number: BG-14 006


Canada is a world leader in terms of the proportion of women in its military, and the areas in which they can serve. Among their allies, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are highly regarded as being at the forefront of military gender integration.

Women can enroll in any CAF occupation, which includes operational trades, and serve in any environment. In all trades, CAF men and women are selected for training, promotions, postings and all career opportunities in exactly the same way - based on rank, qualifications and merit.

Women have been involved in Canada’s military service and contributed to Canada’s rich military history and heritage for more than 100 years. They have been fully integrated in all occupations and roles for over 20 years, with the exception of serving on submarines which was eventually lifted by the Royal Canadian Navy on March 8, 2000.

It is indeed an exciting time for women, for now there is truly no limit to career opportunities for them in the CAF.

History of Women in the CAF and Policy Development

Women have been involved in Canada's military service for more than 100 years. The number of women in uniform has fluctuated over the years, with the largest number serving during the Second World War, when many performed non-traditional duties. Following the large reduction in personnel after the Second World War, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army, and the Royal Canadian Air Force again allowed women to enroll in the early 1950s, though their employment was restricted to traditional roles in medicine, communication, logistics, and administration.

The roles of women in the CAF began to expand in 1971, after the Department reviewed the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. It lifted the ceiling of 1 500, and gradually expanded employment opportunities into the non-traditional areas—vehicle drivers and mechanics, aircraft mechanics, air-traffic controllers, military police, and firefighters.

The Department further reviewed personnel policies in 1978 and 1985, after Parliament passed the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As a result of these reviews, the Department changed its policies to permit women to serve at sea in replenishment ships and in a diving tender, with the army service battalions, in military police platoons and field ambulance units, and in most air squadrons.

Servicewomen of the Navy, Army and Air Force endured much hardship while serving Canada over the past century. It was their determination, dedication, and professionalism that opened the door for so many women to join. These brave and courageous women were faced with many obstacles as they entered what was traditionally a man's arena. Not only did they have to do the job and excel at it, but first they had to prove that, given the opportunity, they would not fail. It was a daunting challenge that women met with hope, courage and most importantly, success. Presently, women serve on a number of global operations ranging across the spectrum from peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance operations, through to stability and security and peace-enforcement operations.

Women in Combat Roles

In 1987, occupations and units with the primary role of preparing for direct involvement in combat on the ground or at sea were still closed to women: infantry, armoured corps, field artillery, air-defence artillery, signals, field engineers, and naval operations. On February 5, 1987, the Minister of National Defence created an office to study the impact of employing men and women in combat units. These trials were called Combat-Related Employment of Women.

All military occupations were open to women in 1989, with the exception of submarine service, which opened in 2000. Throughout the 1990s, the introduction of women into the combat arms increased the potential recruiting pool by about 100 per cent. It also provided opportunities for all persons to serve their country to the best of their abilities.

Today, all equipment must be suitable for a mixed-gender force. Combat helmets, rucksacks, combat boots, and flak jackets are designed to ensure women have the same level of protection and comfort as their male colleagues. The women's uniform is similar in design to the men's uniform, but conforms to the female figure, and is functional and practical. Women are also provided with an annual financial entitlement for the purchase of brassiere undergarments.


As of January 2014, the percentage of women in the CAF, Regular Force and Primary Reserve combined was at 14.8 per cent, with more than 9400 women in the Regular Force and more than 4800 women in the Primary Reserve.  

The Royal Canadian Air Force comprises the highest percentage of women at 18.7 per cent. Similarly the Royal Canadian Navy has a representation of women of 18.4 per cent and the Canadian Army 12.4 per cent. Women today are joining the CAF with the widest range of options for occupations and career advancement.

Just under 500 Canadian soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen are currently serving with task forces deployed on expeditionary operations by Canadian Joint Operations Command. Although the CAF do not keep track of the gender of deployed personnel, it is safe to assume that eligible women are likely to be serving on the majority of our missions.


Royal Canadian NavyCanadian ArmyRoyal Canadian
Air Force
  • Resource Management Support Clerk
  • Naval Communicator
  • Logistics – Sea
  • Maritime Surface and Sub-Surface Officer
  • Supply Technician
  • Resource Management Support Clerk
  • Supply Technician
  • Medical Technician
  • Logistics - Land
  • Resource Management Support Clerk
  • Supply Technician
  • Logistics – Air
  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Traffic Technician

Trend Analysis

By analyzing CAF demographics and processes, the Department will be able to identify all barriers to women's careers in the military. Research is ongoing in such areas as systemic barriers, release from the military, enrolment, offers of indefinite periods of service, performance review rating comparisons, and award nominations.


With diversity in the workplace becoming an increasingly important objective, gender issues are receiving heightened visibility. Initiatives are underway that will level the playing field for women in the CAF by eliminating discriminatory practices and attitudes, rather than granting special privileges and status. Some of these initiatives are:

a) Recruiting and Retention

The Department intends to adopt an active recruiting campaign showing women in all CAF roles. The aim is to attract more women to a career in the CAF, particularly in the combat arms. The CAF is actively recruiting women for challenging career opportunities featuring excellent training and rewarding pay and benefits. To promote diversity and inclusiveness, the CAF establishes representation goals for women and monitors progress towards achieving those goals.

The Canadian Forces Recruiting Group regularly engages in outreach activities with women’s professional associations, educators, and students to increase their awareness of these career opportunities. Canadian Forces Recruiting Group also participates in women’s career fairs. The CAF use special proactive measures regarding recruitment, development, and retention of women in order to build the diverse and inclusive CAF of tomorrow.

b) Defence Advisory Group

The CAF support the operation of Defence Employment Equity Advisory Groups for each of the four groups designated by the Employment Equity Act, including the Defence Women's Advisory Organization. The goal of the Defence Advisory Groups, both at the national and local level, is to consult with designated group members, provide advice and insight to the leadership on issues relevant to their membership and implementation of employment equity.

Defence Advisory Groups are looked upon to assist management with the employment equity action plans, provide direction to resource outlets, harmonize relations with the four identified designated group members, escalate retention rates, and provide evolutional, viable teams, and productive working environmental situations. These groups are mandated to discuss evolving employment equity policies, encourage new strategies regarding recruitment and retention, and support facilitation of positive work environments.

Each year, Canadians celebrate International Women's Week in March, with the highlight on International Women's Day. International Women's Day marks a celebration of the economic, social, cultural, and political achievements for women throughout the world. The first International Women’s Day was held on March 19, 1911, in Germany, Austria, Denmark, and other European countries. In 1977, the United Nations established March 8 as International Women’s Day. This special day provides an opportunity to celebrate the progress made to advance equality for women and to consider steps to bring about equality for women in all their diversity.

In Canadian military history, we can look back more than 100 years and see how much women have contributed to Canada. For more information onInternational Women's Day, visit the Status of Women Canada website: http://www.swc-cfc.gc.ca.

c) Liaison with other organizations and nations

Canada is represented on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Committee on Gender Perspectives, formerly the Committee of Women in the NATO Forces. The NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives is focused on implementation of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution and related UN resolutions. These resolutions address issues such as: the inclusion of women and girls in the peace process, protection of women during and after conflict, prevention of sexual violence against women and children in conflict, and pre-deployment training of military and civilian police personnel on the protection, rights and particular needs of women.

Other nations that are still wrestling with women-in-combat issues, including Australia, Chile, Germany, Peru, the United Kingdom, and the United States, often call upon the Department as a resource on gender-integration issues. Canada has contributed to NATO discussions on gender mainstreaming and ‘best practices’ for integration of gender-based considerations in NATO-led operations, from a national perspective.

d) Diversity Training and Education

All members of the CAF must have a clear understanding of employment equity and diversity and how it can benefit the organization. All personnel receive awareness training and/or information sessions throughout their career and have direct contact through their chain of command to the latest information on the subject of Employment Equity and diversity. The Department is also conducting a needs analysis to determine the best way for staff to deliver diversity training to all CAF members.

Basic Diversity Training is given as part of basic training for both officers and non-commissioned members and more advanced training is provided on advanced leadership qualification courses. The curriculum’s components include sessions on CAF personal conduct policies such as harassment prevention and resolution, personal conduct and relationships, sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment. All CAF members learn that sexual misconduct and sexual harassment are not tolerated and that a CAF member who engages in sexual misconduct is liable to disciplinary and administrative action, including release from the military.

Prior to deployment to an operational theatre, CAF personal receive specific training on the CAF Code of Conduct, human rights, ethics and individual conduct, gender differences, and culture.  This training includes instruction on the protection of women and children and other vulnerable populations during conflict.  

e) Family support

The loved ones of CAF members play a critical role in the success of Canada’s men and women in uniform. The CAF have a moral obligation to provide support to its members and their families, and to ease the difficulties of juggling career and home. Issues such as child care, spousal employment, lack of geographic stability, pregnancy leave, and single parenthood are all factors that contribute to the departure of women from the CAF. The CAF continually review and amend personnel policies so CAF members, both women and men, can achieve a better balance between military service and family responsibilities.

The CAF are committed to ensuring military families are provided the information and services they need to support their unique and often demanding lifestyle. The Military Family Services program was established in 1991 and continues to meet families’ changing needs. In 2011, two new services were launched: The FamilyForce.ca website (www.familyforce.ca/splash.aspx) and the Family Information Line (www.familyforce.ca/sites/FIL/EN/Pages/default.aspx), which will keep military families better informed, connected and involved.  These new initiatives will connect military families to a wealth of existing programs and resources, as well as help increase their awareness and access to services. With frequent moves being a way of life for many military families, becoming acquainted with a new community and finding out what services, programs and resources are available is very important. 

Into the Future

The history of Canadian service women is an important part of our national military heritage and their achievements contribute to the full and equal inclusion of women in our society and national institutions.

Military recruiting and retention are top priorities for the CAF and the Government of Canada.  The CAF is committed to providing a welcoming, fair and supportive work environment for all its members, while implanting new recruitment strategies.  This includes developing flexible employment opportunities that will be increasingly attractive to women, allowing them to excel in service to Canada.

To promote diversity and inclusiveness, the CAF establishes representation goals for women and monitors progress towards achieving those goals. It is recognized that achieving representation goals is a long-term objective.  Demonstration of progress, in the form of Employment Equity Act compliance and improvement in representation, becomes the immediate objective. The revised CAF Employment Equity Plan (November 2010) establishes the long-term employment equity goal for women as 25.1 per cent.

Be they men or women, regardless of race, religion, or culture, CAF members share a common goal – protecting the country, its interests, and values while also contributing to international peace and security.

Frequently Asked Questions – Gender Integration

Q1. How many women serve in what you would define as 'front line' roles?

A1. With respect to women serving in ‘front line’ roles, it is safe to assume that women currently serve in the majority of CAF missions. For example, during Canada’s ten-year combat mission in Afghanistan, Operation Athena, serving women represented about 10 per cent of CAF members, and have assumed front line roles in several occupations including combat arms.

Q2.  Have the CAF conducted any research post-integration on issues which arose during the process?

A2. Since all restrictions on the employment of women in the CAF have been removed, gender integration is now considered to be a "fait accompli". There is no developed research agenda in the area of women's service in combat or ‘front line’ roles. We are unaware of any post-integration issues with the employment of women in the combat arms. That said, the CAF actively seeks to increase the representation of women. The CAF continually monitor current trends in the representation, recruitment, and attrition of women by conducting surveys, consulting with advisory groups to identify any issues and challenges, and applying the recommendations put forth in the CAF Employment Equity Plan.     

Q3. The CAF fully integrated early. Did they take advice from other countries which had gone before?

A3. Yes. In the 1980s, Canada consulted with allies who integrated women in their combat arms such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, but this was not conclusive as these countries had very few women in their combat arms at the time.  

The CAF conducted their own research and trials for more than a decade by integrating women in combat roles in isolated units and deployments. Trials revealed that there was no reason for excluding women in any role and, thanks to good policy and positive leadership practices for enhancing gender integration in the CAF, the integration was successful.

Today, Canada is a world leader in terms of the proportion of women in its military, and the areas in which they can serve. Among their allies, the CAF are highly regarded as being at the forefront of military gender integration.

Canadian Army

Q4.  How many women serve in the Canadian Army?

A4.  The percentage of women in the Canadian Army which includes women serving in the Regular Force and Primary Reserves, is 14.8 per cent.

Q5.  What are combat arms?

A5.  ‘Combat Arms’ is a collective term used to describe the four combat-focused occupations within the Canadian Army: armour, artillery, infantry and engineer.

Q6.  What is the representation of women in the combat arms?

A6.  Presently, Regular Force women comprise about 2.4 per cent of the combat arms, and Primary Reserve women comprise about 5.6 per cent.

Q7.  What combat arms occupations have the highest representation of women?

A7.  Currently, the combat arms’ officer occupations with the highest representation of women are artillery and engineer. Among the combat arms’ non-commissioned member occupations, artillery and armour have the highest representation of women.

Q8.  Why do certain combat arms occupations have higher representation of women?

A8.  There is no reason, internal to the CAF, as to why the numbers of women in combat arms occupations are what they are. With respect to the employment of women, combat arms is considered one of the most non-traditional CAF occupational groups. There is what we call a “military factor” which influences the interest and propensity of individuals to join the CAF and also to select service in the combat arms. The “military factor” comprises the unique conditions and requirements of military service distinguishing the CAF from any other profession in Canada. Some of the challenges associated with a military career include deployment, separation from family, relocation, and the general rigours of military life. These realities may discourage some women and men from considering a career in the CAF, and particular, in the combat arms. The representation rates for women in CAF combat arms are not inconsistent with statistics for women in analogous occupations in other western militaries. While the number of women who choose to serve in the Canadian Army’s combat arms appears low, there are no systemic barriers or impediments preventing women from doing so. As the CAF is an all volunteer force, ultimately the choice is theirs.

Q9. Is representation of women in combat arms occupations growing?

A9. Yes. There has been modest growth in representation of women in the combat arms since 1989, of about 2.2 per cent (an average which combines women serving as officers and non-commission members).

Q10.  How do battlefield performances differ between women and men employed in combat arms occupations?

A10.  The CAF have not specifically commissioned studies to examine the differences between women’s and men’s performances on the battlefield, however, the Canadian Army has been operating successfully in a gender neutral environment for a generation. Women are as equally capable of operating on the battlefield as men, based on the fact both male and female soldiers must be able to meet standard occupational requirements and competencies within their professions. In addition, women and men must complete the requisite pre-deployment training so they may be deployed on operations in whatever capacity is asked of them, such as the CAF's combat mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Q11.  How many female combat arms officers achieve leadership positions within their respective occupations?

A11.  A number of CAF female combat arms officers have commanded at the senior officer level in their occupation. Many women across the navy, air force, and other army occupations have also held leadership and command positions. In addition, many women across the CAF have commanded at the junior officer level and have held leadership positions as non-commissioned members.

Royal Canadian Air Force

Q12.  When did the RCAF first have women as pilots?

A12.  In 1979, Captain Deanna Brasseur, Captain Leah Mosher and Captain Nora Bottomley were the first women selected for pilot training in the CAF.  The first female pilot in the modern CAF was actually Major Wendy Clay, a medical officer, who qualified as a pilot in 1974, six years before the pilot classification was opened to women.

In 1981, Second Lieutenant Inge Plug became the first female helicopter pilot, the same year that Lieutenant Karen McCrimmon became the first female air navigator.

Q13.  Can women serve as CF-18 Hornet fighter jets pilots?

A13.  Yes. For example, Major Dee Brasseur and Captain Jane Foster when they qualified as CF-18 fighter pilots in 1989. Major Brasseur has since accumulated over 2500 flight hours as a fighter pilot, flying in both North America and Europe, and was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Hall of Fame on February 17, 2007.

Q14.  Are there any Air Force trades that are closed to women?

A14.  No. Women can enroll in any occupation, which includes operational trades such as Pilot, Air Combat Systems Officer, Aviation Technician and Aerospace Control Operator. In all of these occupations, airmen and airwomen are selected for training and promotions, postings and all career opportunities in exactly the same way, which is based on rank, qualifications and merit.

Q15.  What is the representation of women in the Royal Canadian Air Force?

A15.  At 18.7 per cent, the Royal Canadian Air Force has the highest representation of women of all environments which includes women serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force Regular Force and Primary Reserves.

Q16.  Have airwomen assumed roles as Wing Commanders?

A16.  Yes. Lieutenant-Colonel Tammy Harris became the first woman Wing Commander when she assumed command of 9 Wing Gander in Newfoundland in 2006. And, of note, Chief Warrant Officer Linda Smith became the first woman in the CAF to be named Wing Chief Warrant Officer at 17 Wing in Winnipeg in 1995.

There have also been several female leaders appointed at the Squadron level:  Lieutenant-Colonel Karen McCrimmon was appointed Commanding Officer of 429 Transport Squadron in Trenton, Ontario in 1998, and in 2010, Lieutenant-Colonel Maryse Carmichael became the first female Commanding Officer of 431 (Air Demonstration) Squadron, whose members are best known as the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.

Q17. Does the Royal Canadian Air Force have any women serving as generals? 

A17.  Yes. Major-General Christine Whitecross, an air force engineer, achieved her rank on June 30, 2011 and was subsequently posted into the position of Chief of Staff for Assistant Deputy Minister (Infrastructure and Environment) and appointed Chief Military Engineer of the CAF at National Defence Headquarters. Prior to that, in 2006, Brigadier-General Whitecross was the first woman to be appointed Joint Task Force North Commander.

While Medical Officer is not specifically an Air Force occupation, Major Wendy Clay became the first female flight surgeon in the Canadian military in 1974, which is the same year she received her pilot’s wings.  In 1989, she was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General and was named Deputy Surgeon General at National Defence Headquarters in 1992. Two years later, she was the first woman in the CAF promoted to the rank of Major-General and became the first woman to serve as Canada’s Surgeon General.

Date modified: