Breaking through the glass ceiling: Lessons from female police leaders

The female professional eventually works through the difficulties she has faced and comes out the other side – stronger, smarter and more confident

I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel around the country teaching law enforcement leadership. Through this experience I have been able to hear the stories of countless women who have broken through the glass ceiling and have risen to a leadership role.

Through these stories, I have uncovered a common theme specific to the female experience.

Leadership is very different for women in law enforcement than it is for men. Here, I will share something significant I have learned from the stories I have gathered from dozens of women across the nation about police life, professional struggles, and advancing to a position of leadership.

NYPD Chief Joanne Jaffe  addresses attendees at the 2009 NYPD Women's History Celebration.
NYPD Chief Joanne Jaffe addresses attendees at the 2009 NYPD Women's History Celebration. (Photo/NYPD)

Be Your Authentic Self

As police professionals, women are very different than men. Nothing negative or necessarily positive — just different. If we are to achieve positions of leadership in this industry, we must recognize these differences, embrace them and work with them to achieve success. If any woman spends her career in this field trying to act like anything other than her authentic self, she will be frustrated, disappointed and disheartened.

Women have something powerful to contribute to police work. We need to stop being afraid of being “the girl” and trying to blend in as one of the guys. This bad habit of trying to act like something we are not is suppressing our ability to use our natural talents and abilities to shine. When we start embracing our differences and being the best version or ourselves, we will experience success naturally. I am not talking about anything extreme here — we just need to stop being afraid of who we are and what we have to offer.

In my travels I have been fortunate to have many women share their stories with me. I try to honor their experiences by using them to enrich my teaching and my writing. While the people I meet while I travel are all very different, there are many common themes present in almost every story I hear. One of the most frequently occurring revolves around having the courage to be your authentic self.  

I hear stories of female law enforcement professionals trying to get ahead and struggling in similar ways. They try to be everything to everyone. They go above and beyond because something in this profession still sends subtle messages that as a female, they have to prove they measure up. No matter how hard they try, they never seem to gain the momentum of their male counterparts. There are obstacles along the way and they get tired. Sometimes they give up, other times they break through.

There are obstacles for everyone — male and female. The difference is when career challenges present to female officers, there is a little part of us that always wonders, “Is this happening to me because I am a girl?”

Obstacles and Setbacks

Wondering if your gender is prohibiting you from achieving the professional success you think you deserve in and of itself is an obstacle. An obstacle you have the power to eliminate entirely by changing the way you think. I am not asking anyone to tolerate illegal behavior. What I am suggesting is that you have the power to overcome ignorant thinking by continuing to move forward and not allowing it to stand in the way of you and the success you want to achieve.

The simple fact is it doesn’t matter what causes the obstacle. Once it has happened, it has happened. Unless the action is so egregious that it is clearly against the law, speculating on whether your gender was a contributing factor will not serve you well if you want to get past the issue. We cannot change the past and shouldn’t spend much time dwelling in it.

In any professional career, at some point there will be an instance of some form of setback. Sometimes it is a personal issue that causes the struggle — marriage, childbirth, illness, divorce. Other times, the situation is professional in nature — injury, missed promotion, mishandling of an incident, citizen complaint. Either way, if you stick around long enough, a setback is bound to show up at some point and cause you distress.  

When people tell me about the setback they experienced, it is often described as the lowest point in their career. The stories of courage and strength I have heard in overcoming extreme circumstances are nothing less than amazing. Once any setback occurs we have to make a choice. There are only two options — we let the setback define us, or we become defined by our ability to rise above the situation and continue to give our best to this noble profession. The good news is, as long as you chose the latter option, the setback will be temporary. Every tomorrow is a new day where you can gather your resolve and start moving forward again.

With a resilient mindset in this new tomorrow something amazing happens. The female professional eventually works through the difficulties she has faced and comes out the other side — stronger, smarter and more confident. After this experience, she is tired of trying to please everyone else and starts focusing on making herself happy. She works hard, but not to prove herself to someone else; rather because she is proud of her skills and abilities. She speaks up and allows her voice to be heard instead of keeping silent and trying not to draw unwanted attention. She moves forward, always holding herself to a higher standard. Every day she brings her best to her professional performance. Not to try and get ahead, but because it is the right thing to do. It is the type of person she is. This is where the magic begins. She is her authentic self again and she is amazing. Slowly and steadily this hard-working, confident professional begins to rise through the ranks.

This story is remarkable, and it is shared by countless women in the law enforcement profession throughout our great country; but it is the story of yesterday. While the setback component seemed to be a mandatory part of achieving success for many of the women who have spent years fighting for equality in this profession, it is not necessary anymore. By knowing our worth and learning from our predecessors, today’s female law enforcement professional’s ability to succeed knows no limit.


Today, women are emerging as leaders in this profession without the trials and tribulations of yesteryear. Every woman needs to know that the key to getting ahead lies in a combination of hard-work, competence, fortitude and confidence. Opportunities to develop in these areas are present in each moment of every workday.

Stay the course and keep giving your best to the profession. By committing to a few simple principles, we can break the glass ceiling that used to hang over our head and achieve whatever level of leadership we aspire to. The secret to getting ahead is found in your daily habits; hard work, continuous learning, professional behavior, authenticity. Repeat this behavior each and every day and nothing will stop your ability to achieve success. 

This article, originally published June 28, 2016, has been updated

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