Solutions to Common Barriers for Female Officers

Female police officers have come a long way since their inclusion into the field of law enforcement in the 1800s. However, even with the strides made through federal legislation, female police officers still face “barriers” that hinder their career advancement opportunities.

Many studies have discussed individual examples of these promotion and inclusion barriers in law enforcement. However, rarely do studies depict these barriers within a single framework from which police administrators may more easily identify and thus precisely target solutions to eliminate the existence of those barriers.

The first key to a work environment that avoids these barriers is to understand where the barriers typically exist (internal or external). Of the dozen or so barriers, some exist outside the police department but most exist inside. Hence, the majority of these job promotion and inclusion barriers are within the police administrator’s scope of influence. The second key is recommendations to assist them in proactively eliminating these barriers.

Sexual Harassment (Internal Barrier)

Gender discrimination and sexual harassment of female police officers along with continued displays of negative attitudes by male police officers has a negative impact on the retention of female officers. Retaliation against females for filing sexual harassment complaints can be severe and making such a complaint can be a “career killer” for women in policing. Due to the tremendous peer pressure placed on women not to make a complaint, some women resign rather than go through the stress of an investigation and the consequent retaliation.

Law enforcement administrators should take gender discrimination and sexual harassment complaints seriously and assume the proactive role of impartial facilitator when addressing these complaints. No law enforcement administrator likes the stigma of having a complaint or grievance filed under their watch. However, the manner in which administrators facilitate the handling of gender discrimination and sexual harassment complaints has consequences for all involved.

Compared to Male Peers (Internal Barrier)

Being compared and judged to male peers makes the work environment for female police officers more stressful and challenging with regard to promotion opportunities. When male law enforcement administrators compare their female subordinates to male abilities and aptitudes in making promotion or hiring decisions, they create a dysfunctional system that fails to recognize differences between female and male officers.

Law enforcement administrators should recognize that differences do exist between female and male police officers. And that those differences biologically and psychologically can be harnessed into positive work actions. They do not reduce the competence level and capabilities of female officers when performing their law enforcement job duties.

Lack of Leadership (Internal Barrier)

Law enforcement administrators who don’t commit themselves to the removal of promotion and inclusion barriers will contribute to minimal career gains for female police officers. The result is a likely reduction of recruiting competent and capable female police officers.

Setting a professional example for subordinates is mandatory. Law enforcement administrators should proactively create and explicitly communicate to their subordinates that sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination on the job will be met with zero tolerance and meet serious consequences if those behaviors are emitted in the workplace. Needed is the leadership that ignores false notions of female capabilities and competencies – leadership that guides their employees as a unified department and builds favorable conditions to recruit females into the field of law enforcement.

Lack of Mentoring (Internal Barrier)

A lack of mentors and appropriate guidance within a female police officer’s department costs police departments in time, training and employee replacement. Creating networking opportunities and having role models are important for female police officers. It provides new female police officers with someone to talk with and look up to. Without these capabilities, female officers face social isolation in the workplace.

Law enforcement administrators should serve as positive mentors and understand the importance of their position in guiding subordinates to be the best they can be. Mentoring programs, programs to raise awareness of female police officer issues, and women support networks should be encouraged.

Male-Dominated Police Culture (Internal Barrier)

The socio-demographic of the police workforce is predominantly male, which requires female police officers to adapt to a male work environment. Female officers are typically judged and compared to their male peers. As a result, female officers may not be afforded the same opportunities for training, assigned duties and promotions as their male colleagues.

Police administrators should recognize that in the field of law enforcement, the gender of their subordinates is irrelevant and that skill and ability enhancement opportunities for female police officers will enhance public safety.

Lack of Promotional Opportunities (Internal Barrier)

Most police officers seek assignments that provide new challenges, new duties, broaden their experience, and enhance their promotional opportunities. However, gender bias often results in female police officers being assigned to more traditional “feminine” areas that deal with juveniles, females or administration. Female police officers tend to be represented at the bottom of the hierarchy in most police organizations with a very small percentage being promoted beyond the rank of sergeant.

Law enforcement administrators can attract qualified female candidates into the field of law enforcement by demonstrating that career advancement opportunities within their departments are created on the basis of competence and capabilities and not by gender-based decision-making.

Organizational Structures (Internal Barrier)

Under the Traditional Policing organizational structure, successful police officers are considered authoritarian (masculine) in nature. Therefore, Traditional Policing structures lead to a more masculine police culture. This culture may be hostile to women and allow male officers to justify an exclusive domain for themselves based on the argument of physical ability.

To rectify this approach and generate greater interactions with local communities, Community Policing organizational structures have been implemented where police officers work together with citizens and community organizations in the execution of organizational policies and legal mandates. As a result, male and female police officers have expressed more positive attitudes under the Community Policing organizational structure.

Tokenism (Internal Barrier)

Instead of being hired, promoted and evaluated on their own merits, female police officers may be at times evaluated, promoted, and hired as “tokens” to satisfy statistical requirements of the government or political needs. Since women face the obstacle of becoming tokens within the police departments for which they work, recruitment of qualified females may be jeopardized.

Law enforcement administrators should seek the most qualified candidates for law enforcement positions and remove gender bias in their decision-making. By doing so, law enforcement administrators build stronger departments and enhance public safety.

Under-Representation (Internal Barrier)

Under-representation has primarily occurred due to a lack of interest overall in police work by women and the challenges confronting female police officers. Public safety and colleague back-up should be blind to gender differences. Under-representing females in the field of law enforcement denies the public higher levels of public safety in the communities they protect.

Law enforcement administrators should take proactive actions such as promoting law enforcement as a career in local schools to encourage younger children and women to consider careers in the field of law enforcement.

Family/Maternity Commitments (External Barrier)

Female police officers often face the issue of reconciling family and work maternity issues. Family/career issues are a leading reason for female police officer resignations. As a result, turnover rates in policing for females has primarily been tied to either family issues such as child care, an unsupportive spouse, or personal failures in coping.

Law enforcement administrators, while unable to influence family issues directly, can build morale for female police officers by providing words of encouragement, providing private and safe areas for breast feeding, and support their family building decisions. Understanding the dual role of child bearer and law enforcement professional that female police officers may assume will allow police administrators to better facilitate the creation of family supportive work environments.

Forced Litigation (External Barrier)

The decision to litigate against an employer is sometimes the only alternative female police officers have in order to obtain legal and civil justice as victims of promotion and inclusion barriers. This action alone can cause severe stress and contention in the workplace for female police officers and adversely affect local government budgets when seen as the only way to remedy the existence of promotion and inclusion barriers.

Law enforcement administrators should create workplace environments that encourage the elimination of promotion and inclusion barriers that take place in their local governments. Identifying the legal mandates required by law and substituting gender-based myths with logic and common sense will go a long way in eliminating litigation.

Lack of Legislation (External Barrier)

The federal government has attempted to remove promotion and inclusion barriers through legislation such as the EEO Act of 1972 and The Crime Control Act of 1973. Recently, The Fairness in Restrooms Existing in Stations (Fire Stations) Act (H.R. 3753) was introduced, which would provide grants to fire stations to build women’s restrooms and facilities.

Sponsors of the bill claim the promotion of gender equity in fire departments and increasing promotion and advancement opportunities for female firefighters would be one of the positive outcomes of the legislation. With local governments facing greater fiscal constraints, law enforcement administrators can push for more grant opportunities to remodel outdated public safety facilities and increase gender equity in the field of law enforcement.

Socialization (External Barrier)

Promotion and inclusion barriers to female police officers find their roots in male/female socialization processes. Men and women render different perceptions of the role of female police officers as a result of their socialization from birth into adulthood. While attitudes toward females entering the field of law enforcement have become somewhat more favorable with time, preconceived notions of what the role of men and women should be in our society are still uneven.

Many law enforcement administrators are faced with the challenge of re-thinking the beliefs they have formulated from childhood to adulthood about the role of men and women in the workplace. However, by addressing the issue through training programs, and by advancing the issue to the forefront of leadership discussions, a greater awareness and ability to change beliefs can occur.

Routine daily stresses in law enforcement present challenges for both female and male police officers. However, when compounded by these promotion and inclusion barriers, female police officers face even greater challenges when performing their duties. By knowing where to locate barriers and proactively taking steps to eliminate those barriers, law enforcement administrators can decrease potential legal consequences for their local governments and increase the performance abilities of their subordinates and increase public safety.

Sergeant Lisa R. Grace, M.P.A., serves for a public safety department in Michigan where during her 15 years’ tenure has performed in the capacity of evidence technician, confined space search & rescue team, and bicycle patrol. Also an adjunct instructor at a Michigan college, she may be reached at

Published in Law and Order, May 2012

Rating : 9.0

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Posted on : Aug 22 at 10:22 AM By Not Grace

August 8 commenter demonstrating that not everyone can do comedy and the embarrassment a department carries having that person on the payroll. Wonder how many laughs occur around the city council table when tax payers are handed a bill for civil damages caused by senseless gender discrimination actions? Perhaps you could go it alone in a dangerous situation and not desire or expect a female officer to back you up? Good luck to your department and much pity for the community you supposedly serve.


Posted on : Aug 8 at 4:24 PM By Grace

Not a bad article considering a woman wrote it.


Posted on : Jul 7 at 11:42 AM By John Tannon

This article does a great job summarizing numerous dimensions of a topic into one article that both academicians and law enforcement organizations have researched and discussed for more than two decades. Most importantly, this article offers helpful solutions. If this article is low on facts must be dozens of researchers have been successful over the past 20 years in publishing both refereed and non-refereed articles with false findings.


Posted on : Jun 14 at 4:50 PM By Brian Smigy

This article is high on supposition and low on facts. It makes it appear that women face diffferent barriers than everyone else, what a joke. That is the problem with the world, if you fail its never your fault, someone else is keeping you down.

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