Why aren't there more women in policework?
Is the profession holding us back, or do we lack the ambition?
I’ve been working with police officers for nearly 30 years. The spirits of the female officers I know are every bit as expansive as their male counterparts. They burn equally with heroic desire, and they’re willing to put themselves on the line.
So why aren’t there more of them?
With all the gains women have made in the past 30 years, why have they stalled in policing?
• Women comprise more than half the population
Given that we are now a highly educated, financially sufficient, voting majority – why are we still lagging behind men in other arenas?
Women have stalled in policing
Since 1971, the yearly gain of female police has been less than half of 1 percent. There’s mounting evidence this slow pace has stalled, or is possibly declining.
Why are women still so under-represented in policing? Theories vary.
The Profession Holds Women Back
However, according to Recruiting and Retaining Women: A Self-Assessment Guide for Law Enforcement, “[T]o recruit more women into policing, law enforcement agencies must overcome the common perception that policing is a ‘male-oriented profession’ limited to duties that require only physical strength.”
This doesn’t establish widespread bias. Historically, policing has been a male-oriented profession and did rely more on physical strength than today. The Guide went on to blame TV and Hollywood for portraying policing in a manner that might not appeal to women, but how is that the profession’s fault?
The report also listed “hostile work environment” as a barrier to women, citing a poll in Law and Order Magazine that showed only nine percent of male officers accepted females openly. About 38 percent had problems accepting females, while another 34 percent accepted them slowly.
Then again, that poll was taken in 1993.
Back then, studies showed even female officers were mixed about supporting women in policing. (Haarr 1997; behind a paywall) One study showed many female officers do not support each other, and some even distance themselves from other women in order to fit in with their male counterparts.
I couldn’t find an Equality Denied report since 2001. Most of the reports and studies I found about the profession’s obstacles to women were 20 and 30 years old. I don’t question that women faced significant obstacles from the profession then.
More recent evidence indicates women are being targeted and sought for their unique skills. The article “Female police officers are rare but sought after for unique skills” describes police chiefs who want and are trying to hire women — they just don’t get many female applicants.
Another example of encouraging women is on the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department’s website, which presents “I’m a Woman and I Want to Be a Police Officer,” an article that describes what the work is like and debunks myths about women in policing that might discourage applicants.
Does the profession still hold women back? If yes, how?
Could Women Lack Policing Ambition?
Here are some more data points (rounded to the nearest whole number):
• 17 percent of U.S. Senators are women
Looking abroad for comparison, there are 90 nations and 50 democratic countries that rank higher than ours in women’s representation in their countries’ legislatures. Check out the list below, which identifies rank, country, and percent women in those countries’ legislatures:
1.) Rwanda 56.3 percent
2.) Andorra 53.6 percent
3.) Sweden 45.0 percent
4.) South Africa 44.5 percent
5.) Cuba 43.2 percent
6.) Iceland 42.9 percent
7.) Finland 42.5 percent
8.) Norway 39.6 percent
9.) Belgium 39.3 percent
10.) Netherlands 39.3 percent
The United States ranks all the way down at number 91, with 16.9 percent women in the legislature.
But the study found our country’s disparity was not due to discrimination. In fundraising and vote totals, the consensus among researchers is an absence of overt gender bias. When women run for office — regardless of the position they seek — they do as well and are as likely as their male counterparts to win.
The study concluded instead,
“There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t.”
Several factors were identified for the political ambition gender gap that might pertain to policing:
1.) Women are more likely to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased
2.) Women are less likely to think they are qualified
3.) Potential female candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk-averse than their male counterparts
4.) Women react more negatively to many aspects of modern campaigns
5.) Women are less likely to receive the suggestion to run for office — from anyone
6.) Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks
Again, I’d like to hear from you. Do you think there’s a gender gap in policing ambition? If yes, why?
Finally, whether the profession or women themselves — or both — are the reason for our significant under-representation in policing, what might we do about it?
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