March 8, 2019 7:14 pm

Group of 20 women experience rare day and night aboard HMCS St. John’s

As part of International Women's Day, a group of 20 civilian women from across the country took part in a rare experience – an overnight sailing trip aboard a warship. Global's Alicia Draus was also board and has the details.


While more women are choosing a career in the Canadian Armed Forces, there is still a large gap between the genders. Only 18 per cent of those in the Navy are female, with even fewer women getting into the technical trades.

“The marine systems engineering department has the largest department on the ship,” said leading seaman Kara Vassallo.

“Of the 48, I’m the only girl.”

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Lead Seaman Kara Vassallo checks on oil in the engine room.

Alicia Draus / Global News

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But the women who do chose to spend time at sea say it’s a great experience.

“I’ve sailed the East Coast, sailed the West Coast, I’ve been across the ocean into the Baltics,” said leading seaman Shauna Houston.

“I’ve been on four different missions or operations,” said petty officer Stacy MacDonald.

“I’ve done disaster relief and humanitarian aid, and I’ve met a lot of people.”

In an effort to showcase more of the behind the scenes activities to civilians, the Royal Canadian Navy has created the Canadian Leaders at Sea (CLaS) program, where leaders in business and academics can spend time on board and ship and speak with the sailors to better understand their role.

20 women took part in the Canadian Leaders at Sea aboard the HMCS St. John’s

Alicia Draus / Global News

This year, HMSC St. John’s welcomed aboard a group of 20 women from across the country for International Women’s Day.

“Women don’t usually do this. This is a man’s world,” said Sgt. Kristina Mayer, the senior meteorological forecaster for HMCS St. John’s.

“It’s nice to have women educated on what we do so they can spread the word and they can help us get more of a female impact into the military.”

CLaS participants had a chance to watch a man overboard drill and learn more about the navigation and defense systems on the ship. They also got more hands-on experience, from donning firefighting gear and making their way through a smoke maze, to firing carbine rifles and handguns.

The civilian women who took part said it was an amazing opportunity and they learned a lot.

“I think it’s really important for those of us in civilian life to understand the capabilities of our Armed Forces,” said Claire Kennedy.

“Previously I was not aware of all the work that the Canadian Navy did,” said Anne Fitzgerald.

Jessica Clark Barrow said she really enjoyed learning from the soldiers, but noted the gender gap.

“There’s not very many women and on the boat you can really see that,” she said. “I come from the financial services so I see the parallels.”

Clark Barrow said she supports any initiatives to get more women into male-dominated industries.

“If we have everybody sitting at the table and having a voice it’s a much better country, much stronger country overall,” she said.

While there have been barriers to women in the Armed Forces, those on board say there has been a noticeable shift in attitude towards women.

READ MORE: New military team aims to end sexual misconduct

“We’ve been very well accepted and received,” said MacDonald. “With the initiation of Operation Honour a few years ago, things have changed immensely for the good.”

She says there is no longer a ceiling for females.

“The sky’s the limit,” she said.

But being a female on the ship is not without it’s challenges.

“It’s hard, you’re surrounded by men all the time, they don’t necessarily understand how you’re feeling and what’s going on, so it’s nice to have a senior female or any female to help you through those really bad days,” said Mayer.

Sergeant Mayer and Lead Seaman Vassallo acted as guides for the Canadian Leaders at Sea program.

Alicia Draus / Global News

And then there’s hygiene concerns.

“We have to learn to shave at sea and learn how to have your period at sea. It’s an interesting kind of situation,” said Vassallo.

Despite the challenges, the women say they love their career and the men they work with are all very supportive.

“It’s been a huge difference from when I joined 12 years ago,” said Mayer.

“We joke about the old boys’ club, but it was something that was very much real, and you’re not seeing it nearly as much now. “

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