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’s Gains
A current look in America shows that:

• Women comprise more than half the population
• A greater percentage of this greater population vote than their male counterparts
• In 2005-06, women earned 57.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees and nearly 60 percent of master’s degrees 
• By 2008-09, women earned the majority of doctorates
• Women control nearly 60 percent of the wealth in America, and not just because they inherit it. Sixty percent of high-net-worth women have earned their own fortunes. The number of wealthy women in the U.S. is growing twice as fast as the number of wealthy men. Forty-eight percent of estates worth more than $5 million are controlled by women, compared with 35 percent controlled by men. Some estimate that by 2030, women will control as much as two-thirds of the nation’s wealth

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
​As of 2010, women still made up just 11.9 percent of all sworn police positions in America. That percentage is the average of a 17.9 percent high in large agencies to a 5.6 percent low in small agencies, with percentages in-between for mid-size agencies.

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
According to Equality Denied — The Status of Women in Policing,“Despite overwhelming evidence that women and men are equally capable of police work, widespread bias in police hiring, selection practices and recruitment policies keeps the numbers of women in law enforcement artificially low.”

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?
A 2012 study called “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics” might also explain their small percentage in policing. For example, only eight of the nation’s 100 largest cities have a woman as mayor.

Here are some more data points (rounded to the nearest whole number):

• 17 percent of U.S. Senators are women
• 17 percent of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are women
• 12 percent of state governors are women
• 22 percent of statewide elected officials are women
• 24 percent of state legislators 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?

About the author

As a state and federal prosecutor for over 10 years, Val’s trial work has been seen nationally on ABC'S PRIMETIME LIVE, Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK.

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of entertrainment," Val is now an international law enforcement trainer and writer who appears in person and on TV, radio, video productions, webcasts, newspapers, books and magazines. She has been a regular contributor to a number of law enforcement publications and has been featured in the Calibre Press Online Street Survival Newsletter, Police Chief magazine, The Law Enforcement Trainer magazine, and The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Gazette.

When she's not working, Val can be found flying her airplane with her retriever, a shotgun, a fly rod, and high aspirations. Visit Val at www.valvanbrocklin.com and contact her at info@valvanbrocklin.com.

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