Canada’s first female infantry officer draws a full house

First female infantry officerAS

Sandra Perron inspired a large audience at the DWAO’s International Women’s Day event last Thursday.
OS Erica Seymour, Wing Imaging

Jeff Gaye

Sandra Perron’s International Women’s Day presentation to a full room at Club 41 on Thursday included her experiences, her insights, her evolving ideas and more. But other things were not evident.
Bitterness. Resentment. Blame.

Perron, Canada’s first female infantry officer, would be justified in carrying negative thoughts and attitudes. She was harassed, abused and assaulted by her peers as she worked to fulfill her dream of commanding troops in the Canadian Army.

Instead, she put the setbacks behind her – she had expected them all along – and kept up her determination to make it. Eventually, she took her place as an infantry officer on two tours in the former Yugoslavia. And, while she says you never know if you have cohesion in your group or the confidence of your troops until you are tested, she came out of the experience satisfied that she had succeeded.

Perron’s book, Out Standing in the Field, chronicles her often painful personal experience in detail. Her talk, presented by the 4 Wing Defence Women’s Advisory Organization, focused on the lessons that can be learned from what she endured.

She showed how the everyday messages we learn from childhood shape our expectations of other people. She explained her own mixed success at learning to understand and accept people who are “outside my comfort zone.”
More than once, Perron illustrated that good leadership depends not on treating everyone the same, but on treating everyone fairly.

While she was often the victim of malice at the hands of men, she is quick to credit the men who made a positive difference in her career. She spoke of two Warrant Officers: one understood that her failure on the rifle range wasn’t because she was a woman, but because the butt of her FN C-1 rifle was the wrong size for her. He fixed the problem.

Another, in Bosnia, took her aside for a little chat.

“He said ‘the guys never know how you’re going to react. It’s like you’re not yourself, like you’re trying to be somebody you’re not,’” Perron said. She realized he was right.

“Every time there was a situation that demands my attention or a decision, I’d think ‘what would my platoon commander do, what would my battalion commander do, what would my father do?’” she said.

“I never had a blueprint for being a woman in the infantry, or even in the army, really. And so I realized at that point that I have to be me, because I’m robbing my soldiers of my authenticity. I’m faking it, basically.”

She describes that moment as a turning point for her as a leader. And it convinced her that different approaches to leadership, and different models of a so-called ideal soldier, can create a stronger organization.

She described one corporal in her platoon as lazy, even “borderline porky.” She didn’t want to take him on deployment, but had to because “tow gunners were hard to find back then.”

She came to understand he was one of her most important soldiers – he had learned the Serbo-Croat language in just three weeks.

Meanwhile another member of her platoon, a six-foot-four square-jawed Rambo type, fainted while getting a needle.

“So we have to challenge our image of our perfect colleague,” Perron said. “We don’t want a whole platoon – or squadron – of people like ‘Rambo.’ We want a platoon of people who are different.”

Perron sees an important role for men as mentors and champions for women. But men have to shed some baggage, too. “Don’t carry the guilt of every Harvey Weinstein out there. Keep your sense of humour, but use it wisely,” she said.
But her most important messages were for women. She called on women to support each other in the workplace.

“We have this unique ability to help each other,” she said. “Why don’t we do it at work? How many of us have heard that we are our own worst enemy when it comes to the workforce? There are a lot of reasons – mostly because we are trying to assimilate into the environment we work for.

“We’re trying to fly under the radar.”

While Perron doesn’t regret her decision to retire from the military, she says she still misses the army every single day. Since her retirement, she has been involved in philanthropic organizations as well as serving on the board at General Motors for 11 years. There she learned the value of mentoring programs.
“At GM, I had a mentor every one of my 11 years,” she said. “It was made clear, my mentor was not there to assimilate me into the organization. It was to facilitate me communicating with the organization as I joined this new workforce.”

And this, she said, is important for an organization that sees the value of diversity.

“[The] competitive spirit works for men, it works well,” Perron said. “We’re not men. We do things differently. So we have to be the mentors that we never had. We have to be our coaches and allies and sisters and listeners and promoters and encouragers. We have to do that.

“We hold the power to make more change in the work force with regards to equality than anybody else, if we can just show each other how to lean in.”

Have things improved since Perron suffered at the hands of her peers during her army career? Yes, she says, but there is still room to get better.

“I wanted to defend my country. I wanted to fight for my country, I didn’t want to fight my colleagues,” she said. “What can we do today to fix it?”

“The easiest thing would be to read my book and say ‘those things wouldn’t happen today.’ As leaders and visionaries, you should be saying ‘what are we doing today that we’re going to be ashamed of in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years?”

As things continue to get better for women, she called on leaders, especially women, to “stay the course.”

And, she added, “Happy International Women’s Day.”

More information about Perron and her book can be found at www.sandraperron.com.