National Post

Page URL:

Wednesday, December 08, 1999

Removing sexual barriers in army may begin in the loo
Co-ed washrooms recommended in internal report
David Pugliese
Ottawa Citizen

The co-ed washroom on the TV show Ally McBeal promotes camaraderie among the staff of the fictional law firm. Female soldiers have suggested that such washrooms may help their integration into combat roles.

The Canadian army should introduce co-ed washrooms to help integrate women into combat jobs, according to an internal report by an influential military advisor.

Female soldiers, interviewed for a report about attracting women to front-line positions, pointed out that there are no separate washrooms for female and male troops in the field. Removing such barriers in the barracks might change attitudes, the women suggested.

"It was brought to my attention with colourful language that women practise feminine hygiene and men empty their bowels in the same trench," Colonel Howie Marsh, the army's Land Force Command inspector, wrote in the report, issued in January. "They live together in small tent groups. Why should artificial barriers be constructed in barracks? The army needs to track the Dutch Army's experience with 100% application of gender neutrality, e.g. no male or female washrooms."

The report, obtained under the Access to Information Act, contains recommendations on everything from training to changing methods of attracting women to combat jobs. It also suggests that integrating women in significant numbers into combat occupations will take about 50 years.

Col. Marsh said that some European armies, and European society in general, have a different attitude when it comes to male and female soldiers. "Perhaps the Europeans and the Dutch and the Swedes have less problem of being naked before one another than we in North America do," Col. Marsh said. "It's a cultural thing. In some countries in Europe, this type of integration is acceptable."

The idea of co-ed washrooms in North America first gained attention because of the popular television show Ally McBeal. On the weekly episodes, the staff of a law firm share washroom facilities and congregate there on a regular basis to gossip and discuss clients. It has yet to catch on in the real corporate world.

In the Canadian army, washroom and shower facilities in barracks are shared, but the times for men and women are staggered so they are not in the facilities at the same time.

Col. Marsh, whose office acts as a form of auditor-general within the Armed Forces, advising on issues such as training and discipline, pointed out that in some Canadian units in the field, such as tank crews, such rules of decorum are non-existent. Crews sleep together in close confines and use the same latrines. "There are no toilets available, they are sleeping together in close confines to keep warm and it doesn't seem to be an issue," he said.

In 1989, a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision ordered the Canadian Forces to integrate women in all occupations within a 10-year period. The sole exception was in the submarine service. The military acknowledges it has not done a good job integrating women.

Col. Marsh said there are 92 women in army combat occupations, but more than 1,200 women in support roles. He said the Canadian Forces will eventually clear the hurdle to having women integrated into combat jobs, but acknowledged that it will take time.

Col. Marsh said increasing women's participation by 5% per decade is realistic. He found resistance to women highest in infantry roles. In other areas, such as artillery and armoured units, where women have served for 15 years, the attitude is more positive. "Few support the concept of women in the combat arms; the majority is passively resigned to it," he wrote.

Copyright Southam Inc.