Women in law enforcement: How gender differences enable new police leaders

Ignoring differences between men and women in the police profession often stems from a misguided attempt to 'treat everyone equal'


I’m fortunate enough to have a job that puts me in personal contact with literally thousands of female police personnel each year, and there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t meet a “first” — the first female in a given post at an agency. They might be the first woman detective. They might be the first female K-9 handler, SWAT sharpshooter, DT instructor, captain, chief, sheriff, you name it. Even now, I’m still meeting young women who are the first female officer ever to be hired by their department. Being the “first” takes guts, determination, talent, and so much more. Take a look at just a few of law enforcement’s historic “first ladies.”

Rose Fortune is widely considered to be the “World’s First Policewoman.” Born into slavery in 1774, she escaped with her family to Canada and as an adult, appointed herself “policewoman” of the Annapolis Royal on Nova Scotia’s north shore. Rose walked the area wearing a man’s waistcoat over her skirts, helping to keep the peace and inspiring other women with her assertive ways and practical attire.

Abby Hopper Gibbons helped found the Women’s Prison Association in 1845 and was instrumental is securing the appointment of the first six prison “matrons” in the United States, helping pave the way for modern female correctional officers.

Kate Warne approached Allan Pinkerton in 1856, telling him she wanted to join his organization and become a detective. He resisted, but she outlined the many advantages of a female operative, and Pinkerton hired her. The widowed mom recruited and hired other women to form Pinkerton’s “Female Detective Agency.”

Marie Owens, a police widow, was hired by the Chicago Bureau of Police 1893 and given the title (and pay) of “Patrolman.”

Phoebe Wilson Couzins, only the third American woman allowed to practice law, and she became the first female U.S. Marshal in 1887.

Alice Stebbins Wells, a social worker, was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1910 as their first “policewoman” and spent 30 years helping to recruit women into the law enforcement profession.

These pioneers obviously had many common traits, but one of the most important was certainly a willingness to do whatever it took to promote real change. There was no affirmative action, no mandate to hire and promote more women, no lowered standards, no political correctness, no special treatment. In fact, these women and so many like them had to literally create their own jobs, and then very often they had to fight hard to retain them. In other words, they had to actively “buck the system” and just get out there and be “leaders” in a male-dominated world.

Understanding (and Leveraging) Gender Differences
Leadership has little — if anything — to do with rank, position, seniority, or gender. To “lead” one must be able to inspire, be willing to take risks, and be introspective and flexible. In other words, you need to know yourself before you can begin to guide and influence others. In Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis’s outstanding book, Leadership and the Sexes, the authors take the daring step of examining and listing the differences between male and female leaders. They combine and apply more than 20 years of scientific research to workplace issues, leaving whining, complaining, and man-bashing in the dust. Not everyone in law enforcement (or in corporate America, for that matter) wants to hear about the “differences” between the sexes, but the fact remains that men and women communicate, work, lead, and even fight differently. We can’t ignore our differences — nor should we. Instead, we should be learning to take advantage of them!

Ignoring gender differences in the police profession often stems from a misguided attempt to “treat everyone equal.” I hate to be the first to break the news to some of you, but we’re not all equal. In fact, the word “diversity,” which is often synonymous with “equality” actually means “the state of being different; variety, unlikeness.” Despite this, many administrators either ignore differences altogether, or they over-compensate, forcing employees to attend “sensitivity” training (usually geared toward teaching men to adjust to women in the workplace) or retaining and promoting women solely on the basis of gender. Most women cops will tell you, they’d rather work for a good, fair-minded male boss than for an incompetent female promoted to make the department look diverse. It’s not about the gender, it’s about the ability to lead.

For example, according to Gurian and Annis, male leaders tend to connect in short bursts, a quick pat on the back or a word of praise, while female leaders tend to emphasize lengthy verbal encouragement. A combination of differing hormone levels, brain hardwiring, and different verbal-emotive skills makes men and women interact differently, both as supervisor and as subordinate. A man may find too much effusive praise suspicious (“what does she want me to do now?”) while a woman may find a quick “good job!” unfulfilling, leaving her wondering why the boss wasn’t happy with her work.

The Third Sex
To make matters even more confusing, in a male-dominated profession like law enforcement, some women have had to become what Gurian and Annis call “the third sex.” In essence, they need to be more male in their leadership traits than even a man. This can eventfully lead to frustration and resentment in the female employee.

The law enforcement workplace doesn’t need to be equal — it needs to be “gender intelligent.” We need to understand differences in brain function, physiology, and psychology. I teach classes throughout the country to male and female police personnel who are thrilled to learn the science behind gender differences; they tell me this knowledge makes their jobs so much easier and tends to improve workplace relationships, training programs, and morale. As Dr. Louann Brizendine states in The Female Brain “For much of the twentieth century, most scientists assumed that women were essentially small men, neurologically and in every other sense except for reproductive functions. That has been assumption has been at the heart of enduring misunderstanding.”

There is no reason for such institutional misunderstanding. Read books like Taking Sex Differences Seriously by Steven E. Rhoads, anything written by Barbara and Allan Pease, Read The Buddy System by Geoffrey Greif or pick up one of the books mentioned in this article. Talk to your co-workers, male and female, about your differences in a positive manner; learn to take advantage of each other’s biological strengths. And keep reading PoliceOne! In future articles and newsletters we’ll help you successfully navigate the law enforcement workplace, on the street and in the station.

Stay safe!

About the author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.

Contact Betsy Smith and Follow Betsy on Twitter

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