In their own words: Recruitment and retention hurdles facing female police officers
While female officers have experienced a growing sense of belonging in a profession dominated by males, there remain gender-specific challenges
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Hurdles facing female recruitment; Building an officer wellness culture and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
By Janay Gasparini, Ph.D., and Amy L DeWitt, Ph.D.
The status of women in policing has been a topic of field discourse concurrent with police recruitment and retention efforts. To aid police agencies seeking to diversify their ranks and attract nontraditional candidates, the authors conducted a study involving qualitative interviews with policewomen from across the country aimed at uncovering ways in which recruitment efforts might be tailored to attract and retain female officers.
Findings revealed that while female officers have experienced a growing sense of belonging in a profession dominated by males, there remain gender-specific challenges.
Other findings underscore the ongoing reform measures being implemented nationally, particularly in terms of diversity-driven hiring efforts and the creation of inclusive work environments. The results raise awareness of issues specific to female officers at various stages of their careers, thereby providing guidance and insight toward fostering the recruitment and retention of female officers.
What follows are suggestions garnered from the perceptions and insights of female officers who participated in our study that could increase the recruitment and retention of female police officers.
Recruitment of female police officers
Recruitment outreach initiatives on websites and in literature, imagery and conversation should highlight all the roles attributed to modern police officers. As has been well documented across recruitment studies and conversations, many newcomers to the profession are driven by community service and procedural justice ideals. SWAT and K9 photos will always create a draw, but many female candidates would benefit from seeing and hearing about the community-oriented side of policing.
In accordance with the Familiarity Principle of Attraction, women seeing other women engaging in police work at every level allows them to see themselves in those roles, too. Recruitment materials that reflect this notion may readily capture the attention of potential female recruits. Highlighting male officers engaged in community service may also demonstrate ideals embraced by all members of the organization and that roles are not gender-specific and exclusionary. This principle can be more deeply applied by offering ride-alongs and mentorship opportunities between potential recruits and officers.
Study participants heavily reported initial feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt in terms of their candidacy when it came to the physical requirements for the academy and the job. Such fears can easily be mitigated by offering pre-academy fitness guidance from qualified officers and by sharing strategies for passing the PT examination specific to individual agencies.
The police academy experience for female police officers
Most instances of hostility or harassment reported by study participants occurred early in their careers, and predominantly in the academy setting. Are academy training principles aligned with recruitment efforts aimed at attracting female officers? Is there female representation among academy instructors, coaches and administrators?
Study participants reported feeling a need to prove themselves at a higher level than their male counterparts while in the academy, in field training and in the beginning stages of career development. Some participants reported feeling that males were granted a general acceptance because of their gender while females had to work harder for the same benefit.
How might this impact a female recruit or newer officer’s performance? With this knowledge, how might a supervisor or trainer change their approach to overseeing growth and progression of new recruits and new officers? What methods or messaging might be considered to reflect and encourage equal levels of acceptance where unequal levels are observed?
The work environment for female police officers
Most female officers interviewed in this study reported a greater sense of confidence and belonging within their agencies as their careers progressed and professional experiences accumulated. Among officers with more years on the job, there was agreement that acceptance levels and the availability of special assignments have improved since beginning their careers.
Participants suggested agencies would benefit from instituting family-friendly accommodations so that job performances would be enhanced, opportunities for the advancement of women would improve and more women might consider joining the force in the future.
Female officers shared concerns that balancing their work and home lives is more challenging than for most of their male counterparts. They shared obligations of household responsibilities, child-rearing, and carving out time for partnership, motherhood and community involvement, all while striving to grow and advance in their careers. Female officers would benefit from more flexible schedules and greater family-friendly policies. Childcare arrangements for shift-working parents were cited as especially challenging.
What policies could be reviewed within your agency that could better accommodate working mothers and promote pro-family inclusion in your department culture?
Respondents also suggested that their work environment is most effective when leadership immediately and consistently mitigates inequities head-on without having to be asked to intervene. Women who call attention to inequities may not be seen as team players or might be considered unreasonable or over-sensitive. The women shared that inequities ranged from the type of tasks female officers are assigned on calls to the overall culture within the daily work environment. One study participant summed up the gendered division of tasks and roles by stating, “We are always handed the children” when it comes to calls involving family crises.
In an honest assessment of “which officers do what” on a given call, are there identifiable gendered patterns that could be re-ordered?
Career advancement for female police officers
One of the strongest and most repetitive findings from the study was that female officers often feel pigeonholed into career tracks that are heavily associated with their gender. Reported assignments to these ends included juvenile/family detectives, community relations officers and school resource officers. It should also be noted that many of the reported pigeonholes are considered lateral moves rather than promotional moves. Home life and motherhood were cited as specific barriers to promotions due to the associated challenges outlined in the previous section.
Participants were quick to associate roles, tasks and responsibilities assigned to them with unique skill sets they bring to the job: communication, empathy, patience and the ability to de-escalate stressful situations. However, that does not mean female officers are uninterested in other roles, such as SWAT, K9, defensive tactics instructor, EVOC and motor patrol.
Commendable efforts have been made to recruit and retain female officers in recent years, however, a consummate effort should also include a career-long commitment to identifying pathways to diversified assignments and promotional opportunities for women. Recruit, retain and promote with an understanding of the challenges that are unique to many female officers carving career paths within your agency.
About the authors
Janay Gasparini, Ph.D., is a former full-time police officer who served as a police instructor, FTO and crime scene technician. She currently works part-time for the Town of New Paltz Police Department in New York State. Gasparini has taught collegiate criminal justice courses since 2009 and is an assistant professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York - Ulster. She also serves as the Police Basic Training Coordinator between SUNY Ulster and the Ulster County Law Enforcement Training Group, Kingston, New York.
Amy L DeWitt, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Sociology, Criminology and Criminal Justice at Shepherd University and the Assistant Dean of Student Academic Enrichment. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of North Texas. Her research focuses on family and gender roles and her work has appeared in journals including "Sex Roles," "Feminist Teacher, Response: The Journal of Popular and American Culture" and "Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness."