Why women don’t make it to the top in the police force

Cross posted

Today’s Dom Post says that we need more women at top levels in the police force, and argues that a big part of the problem is the entrenched culture of sexism and misogyny. It goes even further than suggesting that the culture in the police force needs to change, saying:

Changing the culture of an organisation takes time, but the time for soft-footing the issue is past. If there are still police officers who cannot deal with women in the workplace they, not their female colleagues, should go.

And it fingers the sexual harassment and bullying of women officers as the big problem that stops women from making it to the top.

There are two explanations for the dearth of women at senior level. One is that the country’s 1564 sworn female police officers are good for patrolling the beat, making arrests and prettying up the station, but do not have the heads for more serious matters. The other is that the police culture is antagonistic towards women. Dame Margaret Bazley’s 2007 commission of inquiry into police conduct and a 2000 review of female participation in the criminal investigation branch suggests the latter is the case.

Dame Margaret’s inquiry focused predominantly on sexual misconduct, but it revealed a workplace in which antediluvian attitudes toward women persisted well into the 1980s and in which elements of the police hierarchy regarded allegations of sexual misconduct in the same way as the Catholic church. They were to be hushed up and tidied away rather than dealt with.

The 2000 CIB review revealed a similar culture. Author Prue Hyman, associate professor of economics and women’s studies at Victoria University, found an, at times, unwelcoming climate for women ”where mild gender harassment and workplace bullying is often tolerated”.

Wow. Tough talk. Watch out for senior police officers denying it all later on today…

But I don’t think that’s the only attitude problem that’s stopping women from getting to the top in the police force. last Saturday’s Dom Post had a full age article about women in the police: What stops women becoming top cops?

There are some clues in the article about another huge problem for female police officers.

“Reviews have discussed how it takes a ‘special kind of woman’ to get ahead; that there are higher standards for women; that the police internal culture demands a certain assertiveness and personal resilience from women; that there is an element of sexism; and that all in all it’s an old boys’ club.”
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She points to the recent departure of Ms Rose, and Superintendent Gayle Gibson, who retired last year.

The difficulty of combining work and family are a barrier to career progression, Ms Hornsby-Geluk says.


Dayle Candy, who had risen to the rank of detective senior sergeant when she quit in 2001, says she couldn’t juggle work and family. She had served 26 years.

“There was an atmosphere that persisted that I wasn’t capable of doing the job because I had a family. And there was very little discussion around changing that. The environment wasn’t created to change that.


One former senior officer believes entry to the top of the hierarchy requires a cop to have served as a detective inspector, an area commander and a detective senior sergeant – all demanding roles requiring long, often unpredictable hours that often don’t suit mothers.


Mr O’Connor wonders if the current push to get more officers serving on the front line will stall progress. “Police work is police work,” he says. “The [current] mantra is front line. What that means is, generally, shift work. Shift work is generally less family-friendly.”

He also accepts that many women officers have partners also in the force.

Both Ms Hughes and Ms Candy question whether the nature of frontline policing is compatible with family life.


“Women in every other workplace are balancing their work with their families, their husband. Does it upset families at times? Yes, it does. I think it is no different from any other workplace.”

Notice the theme in all of that? Childcare and family life is a problem. But more than that, notice who it is a problem for. It’s not a problem for male police officers. Instead, it’s a problem for women in the police force. Male police officers with children don’t have to worry about childcare, but female police officers do.

And therein lies a problem. For a woman to succeed in the police, she has to be a superwoman, juggling career and children and shiftwork, because this is all regarded as her responsibility. Who knows to what extent police bosses just don’t get around to promoting women because they look at her responsibilities, and decide that she won’t be able to manage. Maybe they don’t do this explicitly, but just make a casual hidden assumption that a woman who is a mother won’t be able to manage. That’s certainly the casual hidden assumption in all the quotes above.

A woman shouldn’t have to be a superwoman to succeed. That’s one of the key points that Anne-Marie Slaughter made in her article in The Atlantic: Why women still can’t have it all. Men aren’t required to be supermen to make it to senior positions, but women are. And one of the central reasons for that is that people still think that childcare and families are the woman’s responsibility.


5 comments on “Why women don’t make it to the top in the police force

  1. Denny says:

    Good point! My kids have often discussed with me this thing about who has responsibility for looking after the children. First it was equal responsibility, then as they married, it became whoever is earning the most, and now that my son and his wife are having a baby (November I’ll be a granny!) his wife, a successful lawyer working in litigation, has chosen to stay home for a year and look after their child … Maybe longer than a year. My son is disappointed, he has always wanted to be a stay at home dad (he’s a successful software engineer, moving into management). My other son is also a lawyer and his fiancé (getting married in December, whew, a busy year) is a social worker, has already decided to be a stay at home mum forever, a decision my son is a little sorry about. My daughter will be fighting her husband as to who gets to stay at home. The interesting things about all this is, first, that these men and women are open to who is the “main” caregiver, second, that all their workplaces, a major bank, big IT company, small law firms, have people with families in senior positions, and these people are both men and women, and third, shared caregiving doesn’t seem to suit employers. So some workplaces have changed and it is not assumed that women will be the primary caregiver, and that a woman who is a mother can’t be a manager. Sadly, the police force is not one of those workplaces.

  2. M-H says:

    Nurses work shifts too, and most of them are women. What are the differences; why is it harder to be a policing shift-worker then it is to be a nursing shift-worker? both are front-line, exhausting work. (Hint: we need those nurses on the wards in the family phase of their lives so the workplaces is structured – to some extent – to support their participation.)

  3. Sandra says:

    Good post Deborah. Interesting point about shift working nurses M-H. I wonder how many nurses who are parents of dependent children advance through to the top jobs? I wonder if the proportion of time in which a nurse must be on shift work is the same as for police promotions.

    I agree that the way we shape these discussions, including and especially at the highest levels, needs to change to consider both parents as part of the childcare responsibility. Sometimes I wonder how I can expect someone else to trust that parenting won’t affect my job when I know myself that it affects what I do. I have the option of arranging to work part time to accommodate this, but not everyone does. Also, I will need to go back full time if I want to ‘climb the ladder’ in my profession.

    I know that when I am earning only a part time wage, there is a survivalist feeling sometimes that we need to particularly protect my partner’s workability as that is our main income. I know theoretically that this just doesn’t work with demanding that childcare is a shared responsibility, but I feel it a bit and it must be so much stronger for people with jobs which are vulnerable. Gender analysis meets class survival: result: grim lack of choice for working class women?

  4. […] draws attention to the fact that the same isn’t a problem for male officers. Her post Why Women Don’t Make it to the Top in the Police Force rightly asserts that “A woman shouldn’t have to be a superwoman to […]

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