Author: Nicole Porter, N.A. PORTER & ASSOCIATES
Women are largely underrepresented in the criminal justice industry, particularly law enforcement. In fact, women only account for a very small (albeit growing) percentage of police officers (11.6% nationally, up from just 3% in the mid 70s). However, the need to recruit, train and promote more female officers is receiving far more attention than ever before.
The encouraging momentum toward creating a more balanced public safety force is fueled in part by a growing appreciation of certain unique and valuable professional qualities that women often bring to law enforcement. Such qualities are believed to enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to make a positive impact on the communities they serve.
While most departments and law enforcement agencies are aware of the need to hire a diverse workforce, diversity initiatives often focus more on ethnicity than gender. That’s a problem. With women making up such a small minority of law enforcement, almost half of the population has essentially been excluded from a career in which they could affect significant and positive change.
So, why the low recruitment? What’s interesting, is despite considerable evidence that women are having “a profound impact on the culture of policing,” according to the Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum, they also bring their own unique set of skills to a traditionally male-dominated culture.
According to recent studies, women have been found particularly skilled at using communication to help defuse potentially volatile situations, a practice that is increasingly being emphasized in many police and sheriff’s departments. The Police Executive Research Forum also conceded that, “departments who had a lot of experience hiring women recognized how invaluable they were in diffusing contentious situations.”
Those who have worked with women in the industry, – whether it be law enforcement, in court, or in another corner of our justice system, most will agree that women bring unique perspectives to the workplace. As a woman in law enforcement myself, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best in our field; the great minds of males and females, alike. I, along with others in the industry, can attest to some of the ways women are having a positive impact on law enforcement practices across the globe.
Among one consideration are that women are less likely to use excessive force. Therefore, particular attention must be spent encouraging women to enter careers in criminal justice. An emphasis should be placed on how women in particular, are less likely to use excessively force in conflict situations or pull their weapon. From a legal and economic standpoint, this means women appear in lawsuits far less often than men, which saves municipalities millions in potential legal fees.
Police use of force has always been a contested issue in law enforcement. So, this consideration is especially important when use of force decisions are under increased scrutiny. These contentions often causing heightened tensions between police and the communities they serve.
Women tend to also be more skilled at addressing violence against women and sex crimes. Whether a police officer, officer of the court, lawyer, conflict resolution specialist, or victim advocate, one of the most critical areas ANY woman in law enforcement can make a difference in, is addressing violence against women and sex offenses.
Speaking from experience, it is absolutely critical to have women working in criminal justice. I’m not the only one to have said it. For example, with sexual assault cases, the victim might want to talk to a woman. These conversations are often sensitive, emotional, and difficult for a victim to talk about. The victim may feel more comfortable talking to a woman. But, unfortunately, that can’t always happen because there aren’t enough females in the industry.
Although our male counterparts are doing the same jobs, women are often called to the profession for a variety of different personal and professional reasons than men. In addition, although both men and women value job security, women tend to prioritize a supportive work environment, family-friendly work policies, choice of work assignment, and social contribution.
Women have also been found to substantially improve police-community relations. Our American counterparts shared recent findings on women’s aptitude for communication and restraint in using force, reporting that “over the last 40 years, studies have shown that female officers are less authoritarian in their approach to policing, less reliant on physical force and are more effective communicators”. Most importantly, female officers were found to be better at defusing potentially violent confrontations before those encounters turned deadly.
Those of us working in the criminal justice field know that dedication to ethical conduct and compassionate service is what law enforcement is, or should be, all about. Regardless of what you do for a living, having a female presence is critical. Not only does it support true gender equality, but a strong female presence in law enforcement will also pave the path for other women who are considering the field. People need to know that a female presence is a necessary one.
If women have such a positive impact on the profession, why aren’t there more women working in criminal justice or law enforcement agencies today? The reasons often vary, from stereotypes to recruitment campaigns targeted at males to physical ability tests that favour male upper body strength and masculinity.
Along with the growing awareness of their potential to make a positive impact, more needs to be done to encourage women to enter the field. One recent recruitment effort has been seen at some border agencies, especially those bordering Mexico. These agencies recognized that having just five percent women in its ranks impeded its ability to work with the tens of thousands of migrant women who crossed the border each year, many of whom suffered physical and/or sexual abuse during their journey.
Besides recruitment campaigns aimed at women, it has been widely encouraged to advocate and offer mentorship programs targeted at young girls; another way to introduce more females into the field. Another critical aspect about this discussion is retaining female staff. So, once they ARE hired, as leaders, we must ensure females feel welcome and valued.
Education about the benefits of diversity in policing, systematic internal assessments of why women are leaving departments, conversations amongst staff about causes of the problem, creation of policies that enable women to balance work and family life, and promotion of women into positions of leadership may also increase retention among women in law enforcement.
In Canada, many of our Provincial Detachments look for important qualities in potential candidates, such as honesty and integrity. They must display courage and perseverance, along with compassion and understanding, when responding to challenging calls. These qualities are not strictly male or female traits, but ones that help make a good police officer — regardless of gender.
Women often approach and solve problems from a different angle than males do. Many Canadian Law Enforcement agencies recognize these differences and see them as vital components of a great team. In the end, each gender brings something unique and valuable to the job — that’s why a diverse membership is so important to these departments. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a police agency across the country that DIDN’T adopt these same principles regarding gender roles and recruitment.
It was recognized within the Province of Ontario, that many police services were either too small or simply did not employ significant numbers of females to form individual organizations. As a result (at least in my experience), Canada has tried to remain inclusive; and that means recognizing and promoting the continued need for females in the field.
What advice do I have for girls and women considering a career in criminal justice? First, I’d tell them to go for it. I believe in empowering other women, and I also recognize the importance of gaining female recruitment. I’d tell them not to be discouraged, despite what they may have heard. The industry is largely, built on masculinity and catered to and by, males. So it may seem daunting for a female considering a career in criminal justice. NO field is off limits because of gender. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
There is also a new generation of women being promoted to law enforcement leadership and command roles, with a growing number of law enforcement positions across the country being filled by women.
It appears we may be gaining in presence. But I still think we have a long way to go in developing future leaders. I have always placed a strong emphasis on higher and continued education, for any professional in the industry. Regardless of the position, regardless of experience and regardless of gender.
I’ll admit, it is now commonplace to see women in certain law-enforcement occupations; whether pursuing criminals, solving crimes, prosecuting offenders, defending the accused, supervising people in jail, or supervising parole. These are just a few examples of tasks carried out by women in this line of work. But remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that women occupied very few jobs in this field. It’s only been through empowerment, persistence and continued education that we have come this far. We will only see continued improvements if we keep our focus where it should be; on the equal rights of both men and women in this industry.
Women in Policing, National Criminal Justice Reference Service (www.ncjrs.gov)
Ontario Women in Law Enforcement (www.owle.org)
Recruiting & Retaining Women: A Self-Assessment Guide for Law Enforcement