Humphrey related that before 1910, United States law enforcement was strictly a man’s job based on the military model (23). State police officers were generally young, unmarried, physically strong and had military backgrounds. Women were relegated to secretarial or clerical roles, or worked as matrons in women’s prisons. Much of the increased participation of women in law enforcement ran parallel to the social movements in both the United States and Great Britain (Newburn 97). Reformers advocated women’s participation in law enforcement organizations not only to deal with women prisoners, women victims and juveniles, but also to help change police practices.
In 1910, the reformers’ advocacy proved successful when the first woman was sworn into public law enforcement in the United States with powers of arrest, in the person of Alice Stebbins Wells (Wrobleski and Hess 12). Women in non-traditional occupations have been the subject of several works in sociology, psychology, business and management. Law enforcement has been the subject of some of these works. Although the movement to bring women into the law enforcement world has some unique factors, it can best be understood as part of the overall struggle for women to gain access to power within a male dominated culture. The taken for granted ethos of masculinity in police cultures is reflected in the fact that early studies on policing only referred to as policemen, as if women were invisible in the organization.
Attitudes toward Women Officers
When women entered patrol, their performance was questioned because their gender role was not consistent with the definition of policing as a masculine occupation. It is at this point that the impetus to evaluate women in policing began. Research on attitudes toward women police officers documents persistent patterns of discrimination which continue despite their demonstrated competence (Scarborough and Collins 52). Women officers face additional stress because of this, aside from having to deal with pressures on the job, administrative policies and procedures, the criminal justice system and role conflicts between the job and personal life.
The major impediment for women gaining a greater proportion of representation in some of the law enforcement agencies across the country is, as mentioned above, the common perception that policing is a male-oriented profession, requiring physical strength and a display of physical prowess for many of the tasks. Consequently, many women are reluctant to apply, especially when a department has the reputation of being hostile toward women or has a high female officer turnover rate.
Although there continues to be evidence that in some groups law enforcement embodies a culture dominated by men, there is also clear evidence that law enforcement agencies are committed to increasing the female representation in their ranks. In Canada, for instance, of the 61,050 police offices in 2005, nearly 10,600 were female, representing a gain of 17 percent from the previous year (Kazarian, Crichlow and Bradford 6). This gender balancing of law enforcement is consistent with the positive value that women bring to policing, including a decrease in police brutality, more lenient over the employment of force, and better skill at defusing potentially dangerous or violent situations, particularly to violent behavior against females.
Although police services are a long way from being representative of the gender makeup of the country, they are gradually changing the face of policing. Their efforts are founded on the premise that constable diversity – in contrast to a homogenous male police service – is essential for public and private law enforcement in multicultural societies. At the same time, it is important to note that changing the face of law enforcement is a function of the nation’s demographics and that both the police and the community must share the responsibility for recruiting people from members of both of the two sexual categories (Levinson 81).
Practical measures that can be taken to improve the representation of women within law enforcement agencies in the country include the reviewing of selection criteria to ensure that all the skills required for good policing are represented (e.g., an emphasis on communication skills, as well as physical strength. Likewise, selecting interview panelists from amongst officials who are supportive of women’s involvement as law enforcement officers would help. Finally, it is suggested that disseminating information in local communities on employment opportunities for women in law enforcement agencies and providing positive messages about the role of women in law enforcement.
There are also practical measures that can be taken to ensure the retention of women within law enforcement agencies in the country. These could include offering women the option of moving to a light duty assignment at some point during pregnancy, exploring the possibility of shift and part-time work for officers with demanding child- or elder-care responsibilities and adopting clear policies and guidelines on sexual harassment.
Practical measures that can be taken to ensure an increase in the number of women at senior levels within law enforcement agencies in the country could include creating mentoring programs/networks for female police officers, establishing associations of female police officers, ensuring that the criteria for promotion include skills typically acquired by female police officers, such as an understanding of crimes against women, providing training opportunities to women to help them obtain the skills and competencies required for promotion and exposing women to the different functions within police work or environments required for promotion.
Humphrey, James. Women and Stress Research. Hauppauge, New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2005.
Kazarian, Shahe, Crichlow, Wesley & Bradford, Simon. Diversity Issues in Law Enforcement. Toronto, Ontario. Emond Montgomery Publications Limited, 2007.
Levinson, David. Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2002.
Newburn, Tim. Handbook of Policing. Portland, Oregon: Willan Publishing, 2003.
Scarborough, Kathryn & Collins, Pamela. Women in Public and Private Law Enforcement. Woburn, Massachusetts: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002.
Wrobleski, Henry & Hess, K. Introduction to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.