The story of one woman's rise through the Reserve ranks, from would-be lifeguard to naval commander.
By Kelly Reid
"As soon as someone says you're the first, then you have to be twice as good," says Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, a naval reservist who has steadily risen to meteoric success over her forty years in the Canadian Forces. The first woman to ever achieve the rank of Rear-Admiral in Canada, Bennett calls herself a "reluctant starter" to a military career.
"My father was in the naval reserves, but at no point did he say that we must join the navy when we grew up," she explains. Instead, it was a colleague of her father's that nudged her into an eight-week summer Reserve program. "I was planning on working as a lifeguard that summer, getting a tan and making a dollar an hour," she laughs. "But I started the program and really enjoyed what we were doing. It was so different from everything my friends were doing, working at stores and restaurants. And here I was, going sailing and learning new skills and doing some really interesting things. I got hooked."
After the program ended, Bennett continued accepting Reserve work as the chain of command offered her more opportunities and challenges. She was able to transfer Reserve units during university and continue her Forces work while completing her degrees in education at McMaster and Queen's. Soon, she was essentially balancing two very demanding careers: naval command and full-time teaching.
"Balance is always a challenge," Bennett concedes. "Most Reservists work evenings and weekends, which means you work all day at your civilian job and then go to the armories and work from seven to ten at night, work weekends, and some holidays too." In spite of the demands, Bennett steadily continued her rise to success. "It's all about priorities," she says. "Sometimes you have to say to yourself, 'Okay, I'm going to take my whole summer holiday to go on course, but that means that I can get promoted.'"
And get promoted she did. She achieved the rank of Captain in January 2000 and was appointed Director Reserves within the Chief Reserves and Cadets Division in National Defence Headquarters. Her other national appointments have been Director Professional Development and Director of the Ottawa Detachment of the Canadian Defence Academy, Director of Training and Education Policy, and Project Director for the Defence Learning Network. In 2007, she was promoted to Commodore. By 2011, she became the first woman to achieve the rank of Rear-Admiral and first female Chief Reserves and Cadets.
Although Bennett has truly blazed a trail for female servicewomen, she didn't set out to be the "first" anything. "During the time that I've served, I've experienced a very dramatic shift in opportunities for women," says Bennett, who joined the navy during a time when women were still required to wear skirts with their uniform. "It meant we couldn't march with men because they were so tapered and our strides were shorter. Also, women weren't allowed at sea." During the 1980s, more and more prospects opened for women, and Bennett was excited to be a part of the paradigm shift. Even still, she does her best to keep gender out of it. "I would be upset if they only chose me because it was 'time' for a woman, and I think most of my colleagues would agree." She quips: "Chromosomes are not part of the selection criteria."
While that's true, she does offer a few words of encouragement to young women getting their careers started. "Don't wait for opportunities. Create them or look for them, because you set your own limits," she says. "I also like to tell young women not to sacrifice themselves just to be who they think the system wants them to be. You don't have to lead like a man, and you don't have to be a man to succeed in a male-dominated occupation."
Certainly, Rear-Admiral Bennett is proof of that. Now, she has attained the highest possible rank in the Reserves. Reflecting on her illustrious career, she can't say for sure what lies ahead, especially with the military's mandatory retirement age to consider. Teaching may be an option again, although she admits that she wouldn't mind a little downtime for gardening and relaxing. For now, she's happy to continue serving, and what started out as a one-off summer job turned into a series of watershed moments for women, for the military, and for Canada. Says Bennett: "I think I've stayed because I've always felt I could make a difference. If I ever feel like I can't, then I will retire from this career."