Female Chief Petty Officers hope to inspire younger women

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Navy News / March 9, 2020

“To see a woman in a senior leadership position is a celebration, a testimony that it is possible.”

These words from Chief Petty Officer 1st Class (CPO1) Lucie Simpson highlight the changes that have taken place in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) over the past few years.

As more women join the navy, those trailblazers currently in senior positions have learned how crucial it is to engage, empower and mentor their younger colleagues.

“Leadership starts by its own actions, so we need to lead and teach women by showing them the best example and impacting them early on in their careers,” says CPO1 Simpson, Canadian Forces Health Services Group Chief Warrant Officer. “Being honest right from the beginning – that joining the RCN will be hard work – but just as rewarding. In recent years, breaking the barriers, women have been highly successful in leadership team roles both ashore and on board ships.”

In fact, nine current female CPO1s, the navy’s highest rank of non-commissioned officer, have a total of 263 years of service and 10,050 sea days in the RCN. Their careers are long and varied. They have served as coxswains aboard maritime coastal defence vessels and Canadian patrol frigates, worked in both the Regular and Reserve Force in wide-ranging trades, and have held leadership positions in shore-based establishments.

CPO1 Simpson is the first woman in her trade to serve beyond the formation level. A communicator research operator, she joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1989. She was posted to Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Huron and Algonquin as a cryptologic direct support element operator, and deployed in HMCS Ottawa for a six-month deployment to Southwest Asia. Her current job is her second senior appointment position; she also served as the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Chief Warrant Officer.

While serving in Huron in 1996, the number of women on board was so small they lived in a single mess with six to eight bunks.

“At that time, the culture was already changing,” CPO1 Simpson says. “The navy leadership was making the decision to bring sailors in, regardless of their gender. That same year we moved over to a mess big enough to host 30 women.”

She is constantly amazed that the younger generation of sailors doesn’t care about women in traditionally male roles. “Whereas my generation of women judged each other, competed and tried to mimic what we thought were the expectations for women at that time. Reflecting back, perhaps this was a standard we imposed on ourselves to fit in.”

Her advice to younger women is to find the right mentors, especially other women, who can inspire and bring diversity to their roles in the navy.

“They are very receptive to advice,” she says. “I speak to them regarding work opportunities, deployments, second language training, managing deadlines and expectations, and I also share my own experiences.”

CPO1 Ginette Seguin, currently in charge of the RCN’s Honours and Recognition Program, agrees that mentoring women is vital, allowing them to observe the kind of career progression that is now available.

Having served in the RCN for 23 years, she knows just how far the navy has come in providing equal opportunities for men and women. Over 14 years she served in 11 ships, including coxswain in HMC Ships Shawinigan and Kingston, and deployed on several operational tours.

“I spent the first 10 years of my career trying to be a man because I thought it would help me fit in,” she says. “But what it did was disconnect me from who I am and who I wanted to be.”

“As a 20-something-year-old, I did not appreciate what the trailblazers had to go through for me to feel treated fairly and to be seen as part of the team,” she acknowledges. “There were instances where I did encounter gender discrimination; however, I did not feel it was systemic. I sincerely believe that diversity and inclusion is now the norm and that those who do not embrace it are getting fewer every year. Being inclusive is not always easy, but being informed and educating yourself is key.”

Now at a senior rank, she also realizes the profound importance of being a role model.

“I recognize the significance of my reaching important milestones as a woman, especially when I reached the rank of Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class. The higher the rank, the fewer women role models there are; therefore, all the more important for us to be present and open when interacting with younger female sailors.”

She says that sometimes it’s the most basic thing, like walking through the dockyard and initiating a conversation with another woman in uniform.

“By doing that, I hope to give them a sense of belonging, showing them that they are supported and opening the door for them to reach out if they need to. Of course I do the same thing for men, but I believe what the women get out of it may be different coming from another woman.”

She recalls a moment earlier in her career when she was sitting in a planning meeting for a major exercise that was coming up. “I said to a friend of mine who was sitting next to me, ‘I feel like a little girl in a big man’s world.’ He laughed. Although I was making a joke, part of me wondered if I did have the credentials to be there. It is my belief that one of the challenges women in the RCN still face is their ability to silence negative thoughts about themselves. It’s human nature to have insecurities, but we need to ensure those insecurities do not hinder our confidence in ourselves.”

She says that the RCN can overcome this challenge by continuing to do what it has been doing: encouraging, motivating and providing positive reinforcement, as well as ensuring the right female leaders are in positions that enable younger women to observe and interact with them.

Both CPO1s Simpson and Seguin want to make it clear that while they know their higher rank is an achievement they hope other women will strive to emulate, they also want both men and women to know they are valued and relevant.

“No matter the rank, no matter the gender, we are all a piece of the puzzle required to achieve the mission,” stresses CPO1 Seguin.

CPO1 Simpson adds that she is proud the RCN “is an organization where both women and men receive equal salary, are offered the same training and education opportunities, have access to an Honours and Award system that recognizes members based on their individual accomplishments, and are able to work in an environment that is harassment-free and safe.”

“Reflecting back over my last 30 years, I am amazed at all the life-long friendships, grateful for the opportunities that made me a better leader and therefore a better person, and the acquisition of skills and values that will continue to serve me for the rest of my life.”

As women continue to join the navy, they can see clearly that other women are attaining senior leadership roles, both as officers and non-commissioned members, that they are being listened to, and that they are valued as individuals and as part of the greater navy team.