Women Veterans Experience a Different Reality than Their Brothers in Arms

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(Disponible en français : Les femmes vétérans : une réalité différente de celle de leurs frères d’armes)


As of February 2019, 15.7% of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members were women. The CAF’s objective is that, by 2026, one in four of its members will be women. To succeed, it is focusing on two key areas: recruitment and retention.

According to the most recent data available, approximately 12% of releasing Regular Force members are women. If CAF’s recruitment strategy works, the proportion of veterans who are women is likely to gradually increase over time.

Gender-based Analysis Plus

For now, women veterans are a small minority. Without an analysis that takes gender into account, it is likely that their experience and their needs will go unnoticed.

In June 2017, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) implemented a gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) policy “to ensure broad analysis of population groups is included in the development, implementation and evaluation of the department’s research, legislation, policies, programs and services.” In fact, the Department is one of the last to implement a GBA+ strategy, more than 20 years after the federal government first committed to having all federal departments and agencies implement this kind of approach in their analysis in 1995.

Transition to Civilian Life

This does not mean that VAC was not already taking steps to understand the differences between men and women veterans. For example, the Department’s research team published an article in 2016 on the differences in adjustment to civilian life between male and female CAF veterans.

It explains that women were more likely than men to report a difficult adjustment to civilian life. Female veterans had higher odds of living with a disability, reported a lower quality of life than males, and had a higher prevalence of mental health conditions. According to the researchers, the higher proportion of women who reported a difficult transition to civilian life could be partly explained by the differences between male and female veterans as regards physical and mental health conditions, life stress, mastery, and dissatisfaction with aspects of life or social relationships. The Department’s researchers concluded that further research on the differences between male and female veterans was needed, a view that is shared by many researchers in the field.

Mental and Psychological Health

In its 2017 Veteran Suicide Mortality Study, VAC noted that the ratio of female veterans who commit suicide compared with women in the Canadian general population is higher than for men. Male veterans had a 1.4 times higher risk overall of dying by suicide than men in the Canadian general population, and the youngest males were at the highest risk. In contrast, female veterans had a 1.8 times higher risk overall of dying by suicide than women in the Canadian general population, and this was observed for both younger and older women. VAC stated that these findings would be used to inform suicide prevention activities for CAF veterans, and that further analyses would be conducted to investigate factors associated with suicide in the veteran population.

The issue of the mental and psychological health of female CAF members and veterans was brought to the forefront in 2015 when the report on the External Review into Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces was published by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps.

Researchers saw this report as a clear signal that it was essential to use a gender lens to better understand and improve the health and well-being of CAF members and veterans.

Sexual trauma experienced during military service has far-reaching consequences for survivors. Studies have shown that between 16% and 27% of female CAF members and between 1% and 4% of male CAF members have reported being victims of sexual assault in the military, and that experiencing sexual assault in this context considerably increased their risk of suffering a mental disorder, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Beyond their effect on mental health, cases of sexual misconduct also have career implications for the victim, who may be removed from their unit or even released from the military involuntarily. In addition, gender-based factors that affect the careers of female CAF members persist long after their release.

Career in the Canadian Armed Forces and After Release

VAC noted that two groups of veterans had lower employment rates and experienced larger declines in income following their release from the Canadian Armed Forces: medically released veterans and female veterans.

Three years after they were released, women had a total income 21% lower than what they had made in the military, while men had exactly the same income. Average earnings three years post-release were 51% lower for women, compared with a 34% decline for men.

Figure 1 – Average Total Income and Earnings of CAF Veterans Before Release and Three Years After Release, by GenderFigure one shows that the average total income for women veterans before release is 62,100 dollars and decreases to 48,800 dollars three years after release. Men’s average total income prior to release is 70,400 dollars and it remains practically unchanged three years after release. The average earnings for women before release from the military is 58,900 dollars and it decreases to 28,800 dollars three years after release. Men’s average earnings before release is 67,900 dollars and it decreases to 44, 600 dollars three years after release.

Source: VAC data from 2010 and 2013 taken from: Mary Beth MacLean et al., (Veterans Affairs Canada), Labour market outcomes of Veterans, 30 January 2019.

The lower total income for women can be explained partly by the fact that women generally receive smaller pensions than men, since more women are released from the military before serving 20 years, which means that they are not eligible for a full pension. Moreover, female veterans are more likely to work part time after their release (25%) compared with men (9%), which could explain their lower average earnings. Women have a lower participation rate in the labour force as well, in part because they are more likely to report that their main activity is caring for a family member or partner and/or that they are on disability.

Lastly, the CAF occupation type can also affect female veterans’ labour market outcomes. While nearly 16% of CAF members are women, they account for only 4% of combat arms occupations. Most women are in administrative roles. On average, after release, veterans with careers in administrative roles see a sharper decrease in their salary than other veterans, possibly due to the fact that typically female occupations are undercompensated in society in general. In addition, these data show that, while there are many more comparable civilian positions in administration than in combat arms, female veterans are less likely than male veterans to believe the skills they acquired while serving in the CAF are transferable to civilian positions.

Where to Go from Here

Since the labour market results and the health and well-being indicators are different for the various sub-groups of veterans, specific approaches tailored to each of these sub-groups are required. Researchers studying gender mainstreaming in the military believe that gender-blind policies result in discriminatory outcomes and make life more difficult for women than it has to be.

While the reality of female CAF members and veterans is only just beginning to be considered and much work remains to be done, GBA+ encourages us to include in our analysis identity factors beyond gender that help shape a person’s reality. The experiences of female CAF members and veterans, while different from those of men, are not homogeneous. For example, some female veterans are young, some are older, some live with a disability, some are from racialized groups or Indigenous communities, and some identify as being LGBTQ+. Creative and inclusive thinking is required to develop effective policies that take into account the experiences and needs of the women who have served our country.

Additional Resources

Munn-Rivard, Laura. Gender-based Analysis Plus in Canada, Ottawa, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, 26 May 2017.

Author: Isabelle Lafontaine-Émond, Library of Parliament

Categories: Health and safety, International affairs and defence, Social affairs and population

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