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Eliminating Gender Bias and Sexual Discrimination in Police Departments

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By Kelly Long, PsyD, contributor to In Public Safety

Policing is one of the most stressful professions in American society, yet research indicates that male and female officers experience stress differently. A study published in the International Journal of Police Science and Management suggests that female officers experience higher levels of stress than their male counterparts do. This stress is related to the gender bias, sexual harassment, and isolation that women commonly experience in the male-dominated field of law enforcement.

While all officers are exposed to stressors that are inherent to the job—such as violent crime, human suffering, and life and death decisions—many of the unique stressors that women face are due to organizational failures. Organizational stress is associated with the policies and practices of the department. For example, female officers have less managerial support, little to no female mentors, and fewer promotional opportunities. These same factors make it difficult to recruit and retain female officers.

[Related: A Profession in Crisis: Proactively Recruiting in Schools and Minority Communities]

Police departments must make it a priority to ensure female officers can do their jobs while feeling respected and valued. They must work to eradicate sexism and sexual harassment from their ranks, as well as give women equal opportunities to excel.

Women’s Role in Law Enforcement

To gain a better understanding of why women face significant obstacles and discrimination in policing, it helps to look back at the role they have played in law enforcement over the years.

According to the National Institute of Justice, the first female police officers were social workers. Their wages were lower and they were often restricted to a special unit or bureau. It was not until 1910 that the Los Angeles Police Department hired the first female officer and gave her complete police powers. By the 1950s, women were competing for promotions. In her article entitled “Police History: The Evolution of Women in American Law Enforcement,” Sergeant Betsy Smith states it was not until the 1980s that women broke the “glass ceiling” and assumed management positions.

Today, department leaders must continue to recognize the value and advantages that women bring to policing. Female officers tend to be less combative and more empathetic than male officers, which can decrease occurrences of excessive force. Their ability to diffuse tense situations can be particularly useful in investigations involving domestic violence and crimes against children.

However, despite bringing a range of desirable skills to policing and increasing diversity in departments, women are still regularly subjected to gender bias and discrimination.

Gender Bias, Sexism, and Sexual Harassment

In many departments, assignments are allocated based on stereotypical gender roles rather than ability. For example, female officers can find themselves dealing with issues involving women and children only. Sousa & Gauthier (2008) reported that women were excluded from certain assignments and sometimes given fewer opportunities to confront violent offenders. Also noted was that women are encouraged towards more “feminine” assignments such as community policing.

This gender bias results in limited opportunities for female officers to excel. This leads to female officers experiencing lower confidence levels, thereby perpetuating the misconception that they cannot do “real” police work. In addition, departments are failing to benefit from the many strengths that women bring to policing, such as their ability to de-escalate potentially violent situations.

Sexual harassment is also commonplace in many police departments. A study in Police Quarterly estimated that 50 to 75 percent of women have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment, including unwanted sexual advances and gender-related jokes. Don Kurtz writes in Feminist Criminology that female officers who are offended by such jokes are ridiculed for lacking a sense of humor and further marginalized by their peers. Incidents of sexual harassment and sexism should not be dealt with lightly and all officers must work to identify and eradicate such behavior.

Difficulty Recruiting and Retaining Female Officers

Gender bias results in unequal treatment and employment opportunities. Female officers face resistance at every level from fellow officers, management, and even the public.

In many departments, male officers have a hard time trusting their female colleagues. This is especially true for departments with few women. According to the National Center for Women and Policing, women account for only 13 percent of police officers across the country. Female officers report that their male colleagues are often doubtful of their ability to do the job; in response, the female officer works twice as hard to prove herself.

[Related: Striving to Close the Gender Gap in the Fire Service]

Many female officers are also the primary caretaker at home. A 2015 study by the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health found that female police officers experience a higher rate of personal stress because of sexual harassment, lack of acceptance, and higher overall workloads because of the unequal division of household tasks. When you combine the stress of balancing work and family with gender bias and even sexual harassment, it is clear why female police officers are more likely to leave the job early.

Making Changes in Department Policies

According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), recruiting more female officers starts by making changes in the hiring process, from physical requirements to the oral interview to the background investigation. For example, physical tests that assess the ability of recruits to perform tasks in the field, rather than measure brute strength, will increase the number of females that move forward in the hiring process.

To ensure that women and men are evaluated equally, the BJA suggests that hiring panels be racially diverse, screened for gender bias, and include both civilian and sworn law enforcement employees. Allowing civilians into the hiring process provides a much-needed perspective as to the needs of the community.

In addition, departments must implement strong policies to address gender bias, discrimination, and sexual harassment. This includes conducting sexual harassment and equality training for all employees, as well as enforcing strict disciplinary action when incidents occur. Family-friendly policies such as providing light duty options, help with childcare, and maternity leave must be comprehensive and available. These will encourage women to move through the promotional process. Only then can we begin to see the stress levels of female officers decrease and retention rates increase.

All law enforcement departments must do more to support their female officers; giving them support to perform at their best creates a stronger, more unified police force that is better prepared to protect the community.

About the Author: Dr. Kelly Long has been a Special Agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for more than 18 years. During her tenure at ATF, she has worked arson, violent crime, and narcotics investigations. Additionally, she has been a public information officer, a recruiter, and has taught Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.). She holds a master’s degree in Education and Criminal Justice and a Doctorate in Psychology (PsyD). Her interests include post-traumatic stress disorder, victimization, and trauma.  Currently, she is assigned to an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force in the Washington, D.C. area. To contact the author, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.


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