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Research review: Law enforcement recruitment messaging for female applicants

Law enforcement continues to struggle with recruiting women into the policing profession — recruiting websites aren’t helping

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When analyzing digital recruitment materials, researchers found few agencies had recruitment events targeted toward women, description of mentorship programs for women, or mention of policies and practices that tend to be a higher priority for women.

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By Jenn Rineer, Ph.D., and Travis Taniguchi

Law enforcement agencies across the country are still struggling to adequately meet staffing demands. This problem is even more apparent when considering how far agencies are from meeting goals for achieving staffing that matches the communities they serve.

Women, in particular, are very under-represented among sworn officers. Although women make up only 13% of sworn officers nationally, they have skills and abilities that are critical for effective community policing. Women officers have been found to help restore trust in the police, [1] obtain higher clearance rates for some types of crimes, [2] and tend to use less force. [3]

Portrayal of women on PD websites, social media materials

Unfortunately, existing research has not provided law enforcement agencies with adequate guidance on how to optimize the recruitment of women.

Agencies may engage in a number of recruitment methods from online advertising to in-person events. A very common first step for prospective candidates is to visit an agency’s website to gather preliminary information. [4] Agency recruiting sites can provide information both explicitly and implicitly. Information that is omitted or unclear may have as much of an impact as the actual content.

Learn about how the 30x30 Initiative aims to increase the representation of women in police recruit classes to 30 percent by 2030:

To better understand how law enforcement agencies approach the content on their recruiting websites, we identified 22 agencies that ranged from large municipal agencies to smaller sheriff’s offices. Agency websites and social media posts (both text and images) were reviewed, coded and analyzed to determine how agencies describe careers in their agency, resources for applicants, and how diversity was portrayed.

The portrayal of women and underrepresented groups in website and social media materials was infrequent; this visual representation of officer diversity occurred in only about a one-quarter to one-third of photos posted by agencies. Agencies were also inconsistent in describing both internal and external commitment to improving diversity.

Just over half of the agencies made statements to illustrate commitments to serving diverse communities. These included text describing agency support for vulnerable communities such as Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ communities, as well as non-native English speakers. In describing their own agency’s workforce, fewer than half (40.9%) described the role or importance of diversity. Specific content or webpages about the importance of women officers was very rare and present on less than 10% of the agency websites we reviewed.

Finally, we found that women-specific recruiting materials were rare. Few agencies had recruitment events targeted toward women, description of mentorship programs for women, or mention of policies and practices that tend to be a higher priority for women (e.g., parental leave policies). Physical fitness requirements in particular, tend to discourage women applicants. Some agencies have adopted pre-academy fitness programs to help interested candidates pass these requirements (see, for example, the four-month fitness program offered by the Los Angeles Police Department). Others have advocated for refining these requirements to make them more gender neutral and better tied to the realities of policing.

Unexpectedly, we did not find many consistent differences between agencies with more or less women officers in terms of how the academy, agency, career and overall commitment to diversity were portrayed — and some differences were not in the expected direction. However, we did find that agencies with relatively more women were more likely to provide information about policies and practices to promote work-life balance, to provide recruiting resources specifically for women, and to highlight the achievements of women officers.

Agency websites are often the first way that prospective applicants learn about agencies they may apply to. Overall, the agencies we reviewed in this research often did not directly address many of the concerns that women have about undertaking a career in policing. Common concerns include challenges with passing physical fitness requirements, inability to balance work-life and work-family needs, and perceptions that they will experience harassment and discrimination.

Recommendations for inclusive law enforcement practices

To address these concerns, agencies should be more transparent and provide more details on their sites. This should include clear statements about the value and importance of having diverse officers, providing resources that address physical fitness standards, describe harassment and nondiscrimination policies, and using gender neutral and inclusive language. Agencies should also ensure that the photos posted and used on websites similarly represent diversity and the spectrum of work that constitutes policing. Agencies should highlight community policing and other activities that emphasize the soft skills women often have that are valuable in police work.

As agencies across the country continue to struggle with recruitment, they need to optimize their messaging strategies to reach people that may otherwise be reluctant to undertake a policing career. By broadening the pool of potential candidates, agencies can better address staffing shortages. Beyond this immediate practical benefit, agencies and the communities they serve would benefit from a policing workforce that is more diverse, inclusive and representative.

For more information

See Rineer JR, Taniguchi TA, Aagaard B, Brinton J, Duhart-Clarke SE, Presler-Jur P, Wire S. (2023.) How do law enforcement agencies recruit diverse applicants? Analysis of digital recruiting materials. International Journal of Police Science & Management.


This work was supported by the National Institute of Justice (grant number 2019-R2-CX-0027). The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Institute of Justice, Department of Justice.


1. Barnes TD, Beaulieu E, Saxton GW. (January 2018.) Restoring trust in the police: Why female officers reduce suspicions of corruption. Governance, 31: 1(143–161).

2. Schuck AM. (July 2018.) Women in Policing and the Response to Rape: Representative Bureaucracy and Organizational Change. Feminist Criminology, 13:3(237–259).

3. Bolger PC. (September 2015.) Just Following Orders: A Meta-Analysis of the Correlates of American Police Officer Use of Force Decisions. Am J Crim Just, 40:3(466–492).

4. Castaneda LW, Ridgeway G. (2010.) Today’s police and sheriff recruits: insights from the newest members of America’s law enforcement community. in Rand Corporation monograph series. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

About the authors

Jenn Rineer, Ph.D., is an expert in the health, wellbeing and performance of employees and organizations. As director of the Workforce Wellbeing and Effectiveness Program in RTI International’s Justice Practice Area, she applies her expertise in organizational psychology and occupational health to workplace surveys, interview and focus group research, employee trainings, evaluations and experimental studies in policing. Her research focuses on recruitment and retention, worker health, job-related stress, and diversity and inclusion, and she leads multiple DOJ-funded projects to understand and improve police experiences in these areas.

Travis Taniguchi is a research criminologist. His research focuses on program and policy evaluation in areas such as crime prevention, the health and wellness of law enforcement officers, and recruiting and retention in public service careers.