Women in Law Enforcement: Two steps forward, three steps back

Overall, women have made great strides in non-traditional careers since the 1960's. A combination of societal changes and legal mandates have helped pave the way for women to enter law enforcement in record numbers. From less than 2 percent in the early 1970's to just over 12 percent today, woman continue to leave their mark on the criminal justice system.

In 1845, the first women to be hired by the New York City Police Department were called "matrons." In 1985, Penny Harrington of the Portland Oregon Police Department became the first female Chief of Police, Today, once the last bastion of male domination in the workplace, police organizational attitudes are finally beginning to change. And yet serious problems still remain.

In 2004, women accounted for only 12.7 percent of all sworn law enforcement positions in large agencies and the numbers are declining. The percentage of sworn female officers in smaller agencies is even lower (most agencies in the U.S. have fewer than ten sworn officers.) in spite of women comprising at 46.5 percent of the entire labor force.

There are many possible reasons for the decline in the number of women pursuing careers in law enforcement. Although research shows that women can be just as effective as men, uneven hiring practices, selection processes and recruitment policies keep the number of women artificially low. Often women are screened out of the selection process early on, as a result of certain entry level tests that favor upper body strength or previous life experience, such as military service.

Most women never even consider a career in law enforcement to begin with, due to their misunderstanding of the nature of the job, and the aggressive and authoritarian images portrayed in the media. Once hired, however, women still face discrimination, sexual harassment, or even peer intimidation, and they often lack the necessary role models or mentors to help them move up the ranks. Many never even take promotional exams, giving first priority to family or personal relationships.

All of this thwarts any efforts to recruit and retain more women, and is, in part, why numbers remain stagnant or continue to decline. And yet, recent changes in policing philosophy, emphasizing problem solving and community over intervention, have brought to light glaring inefficiencies and injustices. Widespread excessive force and corruption scandals, overwhelmingly attributed to male officers, are costing cities millions of dollars a year in lawsuit payouts.

Because female officers utilize a different policing style and rely less on physical force and more on communications skills, potentially violent confrontations and are less likely to occur, or escalate into excessive force situations. Thus citizen complaints, or civil liabilities, are substantially less likely to occur. The implications of not having a representative number of female officers is clear.

The under-representation of women at all levels in the modern police agency negatively impacts the culture and operational efficiency of law enforcement agencies throughout the country. Given the many difficult challenges facing modern agencies, the need to hire more women has never been more urgent.

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