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Why are there so few women ‘top cops’?

What can be done to increase the number of women in executive leadership?

If new statistics are correct, it may be easier to find wanted felons than it is to find women in federal law enforcement executive leadership. Once again, evidence about the absence of women in the executive suite recently surfaced. This time, the spotlight turned to the federal government. Federally Employed Women (FEW) reported that within the federal workforce, women only represent 29.9 percent of the Senior Executive Service (SES) ranks.1

When attention is turned to three sizable federal law enforcement agencies, the picture is even bleaker. Data reported to by the FBI, the DEA, and the BATF show women at the SES level holding the “top cop” field position of Special Agent in Charge (SAC) is between nine and 16 percent for those agencies.

All of this begs two questions:

1.) Why should we care about a small number of women holding executive law enforcement positions?
2.) If it is a concern, what more can be done?

Why is it important for women to hold executive positions in policing?
Of course we have to care and the news is distressing, especially when you consider the prevailing opinion that strength lies in diversity. The conventional wisdom is that teams, consisting of people with different backgrounds, outperform those comprised of people of similar backgrounds. Additionally, from a fairness and community support standpoint, police typically set general diversity goals to reflect their constituency. Moreover, I cannot pass up this opportunity to point out that women make up over 50 percent of America’s population.

Margie Moore, President of Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE) asserts that “such slow growth in increasing the number of women in federal law enforcement and the lack of equity representation in the SES and managerial ranks may have a negative impact on the efficacy of operations for any law enforcement agency. Research has consistently shown that women bring a skill set to law enforcement that emphasizes communication. Yet instead of marketing to that skill set, agencies tend to produce recruitment brochures and web sites that emphasize the brawn over brains. We need people in law enforcement that can analyze data, collect and disseminate actionable intelligence and can work cross culturally in the multi-faceted environment law enforcement faces today. Women are an essential fit for law enforcement, but are not actively recruited and mentored into the profession.”

Since we can deduce that police organizations need — and can benefit from — more diversity at the top, we need to discuss where to turn for answers to correcting this deficiency.

What can be done to increase the number of women in executive leadership?
To fix anything, one must first establish what caused the impairment. In this case, much of the responsibility has been put on the organizations themselves. The rationale for this approach hinges upon the presumption that the organization has the problem (and indeed caused it- right?), so it must be eager to make amends. Assuming that key members of an organization with low numbers of women in executive positions are motivated to act on the information received, what can they do?

If the watchful groups delivering these disappointing statistics are right, the cure is mentoring. For example, the FEW study touts “mentoring as crucial to helping female federal employees advance.”2 However, I’m not so sure that mentoring is the primary solution, at least not without further defining.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that mentoring employees, particularly women, can have a positive impact. For example, the DEA had found that while many women applied to the agency, by the time that an offer of employment could be made, another agency had “beat them to the punch.” I was among the volunteers who acted as an intermediary between an applicant and the organization with the primary goal of helping to solidify a candidate’s decision to work for the agency.

As a mentor, I had regular contact with the recruit seeking to answer questions she posed and reassuring her that the DEA was working diligently to advance her application. In turn, when I encountered any obstacle in the process I exercised the authority the agency granted mentors administratively to clear the clog in the pipeline. With enthusiasm, I can report that this “keep-the-fish-on-the-hook” and “grease-the-skids” combination (as later confirmed by the recruit) made all the difference. She was hired!

Two constructs are significant in the aforementioned example. First, the agency employed a precise focus on the cause and effect to develop a workable solution. It would not have been useful for the agency to wait until a woman was hired and working in her first post to implement a mentoring program, if the identified problem was retention in the recruitment process itself. Nor would it have been beneficial on the front end to entirely blame the recruiting staff for a failure to recruit women.

To discover the real problem required the agency to drill down enough to notice that while its recruiters were obtaining applications from qualified women, they still weren’t showing up in basic agent classes. There had to be an acceptance that something was amiss, which at the very least, was a recruiting system that was slower than that of competing agencies. No doubt questions were asked of personnel at every phase of the recruiting process that provided valuable, albeit embarrassing, answers. Similarly, to really get at the problem of few women showing up at the top requires hard questions.

Second, upon identifying the probable cause for the low numbers, a solution that took into account individual decision-making was necessary. Ultimately it was the applicant’s decision to determine if she would accept an offer of employment, so the agency’s response had to factor in persuasion to achieve the desired outcome. Consequently, adopting a more personal means of communicating the agency’s intent to hire a candidate through a mentor was a good fit for resolution. Likewise, guidance to increase the number of women in the executive ranks has to consider their willingness to “go for it” — “it” being the job of cop and the job to the top.

Before retiring, I observed a startling trend whereby many female agents had voluntarily assumed non-enforcement positions that could best be described as “dead-ended”. In speaking with other colleagues on the executive level, I found this appeared to be a concern in many agencies and not just from the promotion standpoint. Hearing an officer recently refer to a female coworker, holding a desk job as “a secretary with a gun” still has me fuming. But if large numbers of women in law enforcement are indeed intentionally choosing a path other than the fast-track, the eligibility pool to the top will shrink; and it won’t matter how many training and mentoring programs are developed unless they are designed for career development, and convince women to apply for and accept promotions. A targeted goal requires a targeted strategy.

Clearly, more investigation is necessary that seeks to identify the core reasons that more women are not making it to the top. I don’t mind admitting that I dread what we may find in unearthing the causes for why there are so few top female cops among us, but we can’t get there until we know the truth.

In the meantime, join WIFLE in our commitment to mentor with a precise purpose!

1 Newell, Elizabeth. “Advocacy group says women not moving up the federal ranks”, April 9, 2010,
2 Davidson, Joe. “Hiring rate stalls for women in top federal government jobs” April 7, 2010,

DEA Special Agent in Charge (retired) Dr. June Werdlow Rogers (formerly June W. Stansbury) holds a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice and Criminology earned at the University of Maryland. She has 28 years of law enforcement experience from three different agencies including the Detroit Police Department and Central Michigan University’s Department of Public Safety.
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