Women in Law Enforcement

Female Police OfficerAlthough women only hold some twelve percent of law enforcement jobs, they have actually been working in law enforcement since the mid-nineteenth century. The New York City police department was the first law enforcement agency to hire women in 1845.  Dubbed “matrons,” women served in clerical roles or as dispatchers for over a century until the women’s liberation movement in the mid-1970s.  And although television shows like Cagney and Lacy and Charlie’s Angels popularized female police officers, women in the 70s only made up two percent of the total police force.

Women face many challenges serving in the police force, and their representation in law enforcement has been declining since 2004.  Prejudged with stereotypically female traits, female officers are often thought to be too emotional, unassertive, or not physically competent.  Women are often eliminated from law enforcement hiring processes right away because they are subject to the same physical agility requirements as men and are less likely to have previous military experience.  Other women may never even consider a career in law enforcement because they associate police jobs with stereotypically male traits, such as aggression and authoritarianism.  If they are hired, women are likely to face prejudice, discrimination, intimidation, or even sexual harassment.  To make matters worse, because women are so poorly represented in law enforcement, they often cannot find appropriate mentors or guidance to help them cope or even think about trying for a promotion.

Despite their disadvantages, however, studies show that many women would make excellent police officers.  According to Elizabeth Watson, Police Chief in Houston, policing requires “intelligence, communication, compassion, and diplomacy,” traits that many women exhibit naturally.  Current trends in police work are shifting the field from the traditional authoritarianism to service- and community-focused approaches, making policing more women more apt for policing careers.  Women police officers are also less likely to use physical force and aggressive language and rely more on communication skills, they are in turn less likely to engage in violence and receive fewer complaints from civilians.

There are many resources and article related to women in law enforcement.  The National Center for Women & Policing is a division of the Feminist Majority foundation that encourages women to enter law enforcement to improve the police force’s response to violence against women, reduce the police force’s use of excess brutality, and to encourage police reform.  The National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives was established for women who hold senior positions in law enforcement and serves to further their interests and encourage more women to enter the field.

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