Level the Playing Field: Are Law Enforcement Policies and Practices Rigged against Women and Mothers?

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Dione Neely 


The majority of law enforcement departments are predominantly white—and male. Women have always been a minority in law enforcement careers. Fast forward 109 years, and there are still only 98,738 women in law enforcement compared to 645,936 men. According to 2016 statistics from Data USA, women comprise only 13.3 percent of law enforcement personnel. Those numbers are disproportionate because women in law enforcement face several challenges—of both external and internal nature—that negatively affect gender equality in a law enforcement career path.
These challenges involve the retention of women in law enforcement due to gender perception, gender role expectations, balancing motherhood, and a disparity in promotion opportunities. Additionally, police who are mothers deal with implicit cultural biases—from male coworkers, supervisors, and other women who have opted not to enter into motherhood—which sometimes force them to leave this career. Under these circumstances, while balancing motherhood becomes a challenge in any career, the demands of being a female member of the law enforcement community poses additional challenges. Moreover, along with the negative stigma attached to pregnancy and motherhood in law enforcement comes indirect discrimination.
Unlike anything their male colleagues will experience, pregnant law enforcement officers may undergo an automatic loss of professional gains made before pregnancy—often not reversed once they return to the force. Further, there is the perception that a mother in law enforcement has childcare responsibilities that make her less dedicated to the law enforcement mission. Nonetheless, turnover in any agency as a result of personnel leaving is problematic. Recruiting and training new personnel to replace those who resign prematurely are quite expensive. Moreover, losing skilled and knowledgeable employees lowers productivity and possibly employee morale. Retaining the women and mother law enforcement personnel in the workplace is beneficial to law enforcement agencies and promotes the diversity needed to retain and recruit additional women to the field.
This thesis set out to answer the following question: How can law enforcement agencies modernize human resources policies and practices to improve the career paths of women in law enforcement in an effort to ensure retention? A comparative analysis of women in U.S. law enforcement vis-à-vis women in the U.S. military and the United Kingdom’s intelligence community was used to compare, evaluate, and review existing U.S. laws and policies, including state and local anti-discrimination laws related to the career paths of women in law enforcement. Specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, and the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA) were reviewed and evaluated. This thesis also addressed bureaucratic, gender, and cultural biases and other issues that might hinder organizational growth and retention of women, mothers in particular.
A discussion of culture, whether positive or negative, is relevant when considering how to retain women in law enforcement. The behaviors and actions of police professionals are shaped by experiences throughout their careers, coupled with personal values. From the training academy to the streets, this combination of traditions shapes how they “protect and serve” their communities and peers. Male officers may opt to be members of the “good ole boys club,” neglecting female officers who are not part of the group or, based on their personal values, take the high road, fighting against organizational inequalities and personal prejudice suffered by their female colleagues. Each type of male officer still prevails in law enforcement. The female officer hopes her department has the latter.
This thesis found that an officer’s values determine whether he or she enforces a code of silence or speaks up against actions that bring shame to his or her department. Finally, when an officer is promoted through the ranks and begins to lead others, the question is whether one will exhibit an organizational culture that reflects one’s personal values or be influenced by negativity learned in a culture that promotes a system of inequality. The answer to this question differs for many. For the sake of policing, one must hope that law enforcement culture is evolving. This evolution should reflect an increasingly diverse law enforcement population that acknowledges its diverse community and leads the way for inclusiveness and fairness within the profession.
The male-dominated profession of law enforcement has a long-established concept of “male” versus “female.” Masculinity in policing is a traditional concept that affects attitudes and beliefs. It should not come as a surprise that few women find themselves in the roll-call room, breakroom, or conference room participating in the male-dominated, decision-making assemblies for which policies are eventually made. Often, policewomen are simply not invited, or those assemblies exclude their participation because they are held at male-only locales.
Gender diversity and gender role discussions should become common in law enforcement. While almost every business strives to reflect diversity, from the composition of the personnel hired to the construction of the workplace, the business of policing finds difficulty in adhering to these norms. Gender neutrality in policing workplaces does not exist. While law enforcement agencies have adopted zero-bias policies, biases have survived in the world of policing. Given their intention to recruit and retain more female officers, departments must embrace gender diversity. Organizational leaders must change the conversations from “Why would a woman want to do that?” to “Why would she not want to do that?”—regardless of what that happens to be. A workforce that accepts and champions diversity and inclusion will be a workplace where gender diversity is no longer a women-only issue.
This thesis examines two other male-dominated professions that have difficulties recruiting and maintaining their female employees. The U.S. military and the United Kingdom’s intelligence and security sector have the same aspirations to recruit, hire, and retain personnel who align with the agencies’ missions and goals while also trying to reflect diversity. Akin to women in law enforcement in the United States, each sector has specific concerns related to recruitment, retention, and career advancement. Taking a page from the U.S. military’s opening the door for women in combat, law enforcement could provide opportunities and training for policewomen to participate in tactical units and promotional processes that are normally geared toward men. Law enforcement leaders in the United States could also adopt the attitude of those in the United Kingdom’s intelligence community by acknowledging the diversity problem in the sector, especially among the female population, and publicizing the issue, which shows they are committed to addressing the problem by taking aggressive actions to correct it.
In addition, U.S. law enforcement could start applying consistent policies to dissuade discriminatory practices. It is imperative for law enforcement leaders to dispel any negative perceptions associated with a flexible work schedule and do so by offering work–life balance options for all employees and supporting those options openly. In a majority-male profession like law enforcement, leadership should research the best maternity, paternity, and parental policies for their employees. U.S. law enforcement ought to follow the United Kingdom’s lead to ensure that law enforcement leaders and employees understand current U.S. policies, including the Family and Medical Leave Act as well as local policies. They should also make an effort to guarantee consistency in how those policies are applied to ensure equal treatment.
The research in this thesis demonstrated that female officers leave their law enforcement careers prematurely for reasons associated with the policies and practices in their agencies. Law enforcement culture and the discriminatory manifestations of those within the sector discourage longevity for the female officer. Gender perception and gender role expectations continue to exhibit the historical masculine traditions that do not embrace the benefits of having the female officer on the force. Additionally, the issues surrounding current policies—or the lack thereof—that would allow equality in assignments continue to stifle the career progression of women in law enforcement.
Moreover, two essential facts cannot be ignored by U.S. law enforcement management and must be acknowledged for true change to be realized: (1) women and men are not the same, and (2) there is still bias in law enforcement. Law enforcement leaders need to grow comfortable discussing these truths within their own ranks and with those they supervise. When law enforcement officials openly acknowledge that differences exist between the sexes, they present opportunities for discussing why those differences should not mean unequal treatment. Those same leaders must acknowledge that biases still exist in law enforcement, and after they do, they must assert that their departments will neither tolerate nor uphold prejudices against anyone.
In conclusion, while obvious barriers to women in law enforcement have declined and more women are joining the force, retaining those policewomen will continue to remain a problem until law enforcement agencies take the initiative to modernize human resources policies and organizational practices. Career progression in policing is often limited because of gendered work cultures that do not include women. True progress will come about when law enforcement leaders recognize and put a stop to the limitations on their female workforce.
To be clear, as Micah Ables says, “changing a culture is never without headache or heartache.” When female officers see their male coworkers standing up for them, those policewomen will feel more valued. They will pass on those instances to others, both female and male. When female officers see other women on the force getting promoted to positions and assignments normally reserved for men, they will applaud the agency’s leaders and begin believing there is hope for them, too. When policewomen are asked their opinions and invited to sit at the conference room table to participate in and help establish policies for inclusion, recruitment, and retention, they will show up and speak up. All in all, when a woman in law enforcement knows that she is playing on a level playing field and has the same opportunities for advancement during her career as her male colleagues, she, too, will work to ensure retention within her chosen career.

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