Women in Black and Women in Blue:
Exploring Gender Disparity in Law Enforcement
Mariel Ravel, Dominican University New York
Abstract: The U.S. Criminal Justice System consists of three components – cops, courts, and corrections–each of which is heavily male-dominated. Much literature has been dedicated to examining law enforcement in particular and better understanding the contributing factors of gender inequality in its professional spheres. Research has shown that women may avoid careers in law enforcement due to fear of physical demands, a male-centered workplace, and the risk of physical harm. In addition, women officers encounter many obstacles including discrimination, stress, and bias, and are often underestimated due to their physical appearance and abilities (Chitra, 2018). This project seeks to better understand the experiences of women in law enforcement, the professional, sociocultural, and familial factors that influenced their career path, and the risk and rewards associated with police work. Additionally, this project examines if and how recent high-profile events involving law enforcement officers have shaped perceptions of safety in the field. Ten currently employed and retired female officers were identified using a snowball sample and they participated in qualitative, semi-structured interviews which were conducted virtually or in-person. The findings gleaned from this study suggest that there are multiple factors that impede female participation in law enforcement. However, despite some notable setbacks and negative experiences, the female officers are proud of their work and accomplishments and may be effective recruiters and mentors to young women that are considering careers in law enforcement.
The U.S. Criminal Justice System consists of three main institutions of components, which are referred to as the three Cs: Cops, Courts, and Corrections. Each of these components employs mostly men, while female employment is consistently low. Within the Criminal Justice System, law enforcement has the lowest rate of female employment. A 2019 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) special report titled Women in policing: Breaking barriers and blazing a path found that women represent 50% of the general population but only about 13% of the population of law enforcement. The report also emphasized four glaring deficits in scholarly and popular literature: first, there is limited empirical research devoted to how to improve the number of women employed in law enforcement; second, there is limited research that articulates successful strategies to improve the recruitment of outstanding women; third, there has been little to no empirical research on ways to increase the retention and promotion of exceptional women officers; fourth, there is also insufficient research for understanding the unique challenges that women officers face and how best to mitigate or overcome the challenges they encounter when considering a career in law enforcement or other male-dominated workplaces.
In an attempt to address some of the gaps in the literature, namely the second and fourth criticisms made by the NIJ, Improving the Recruitment of Women and Understanding the Unique Challenges Women Encounter in the Workplace, this paper uses a qualitative approach to give voice to women currently employed in or retired from local, state, and federal law enforcement roles. Ten women were identified using a snowball sampling method and then interviewed using a semi-structured questionnaire containing 10 open-ended questions. This paper documents the participants’ stories and identifies themes such as perseverance, empowerment, professional barriers, feelings of exclusion, and insecurities to better understand how their narratives can shed light on the bigger picture of gender inequality in law enforcement.
The previously mentioned NIJ report identifies weaknesses in the literature and there are many popular and scholarly articles that report low female employment and speculate as to why this is so as well. Moreover, many articles attempt to identify the contributing factors that result in this gender disparity. Cambareri and Kuhns (2018) report that law enforcement agencies in the United States have historically marginalized women, leading to their “otherization.” Women were the exception to employment practices and industry standards which perpetuate low female participation rates. Despite the efforts to promote equal employment opportunities, law enforcement continues to be a male dominated field. In addition to low employment rates, women also struggle to advance in rank.
Masculinity continues to be highly desired and valued at every level of law enforcement (Cambareri and Kuhns, 2018). Law enforcement underrepresents women, infantilizes them, and depicts them as impotent. This negative characterization of femininity contributes to the women’s powerlessness and low representation in the workplace according to Veldman, Meeussen, Van Laar, and Phalet (2017). This has translated into a masculinization of police culture that devalues women. It also limits opportunities for women and may result in low job satisfaction for women in law enforcement.
The police ranks of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. follow a military-based hierarchy model, and men hold nearly all high-ranking positions. Scholars maintain that male-centric law enforcement agencies work to keep women out of their workforce. There may not be direct blocks for women, but women are acutely aware of the male-dominated culture that law enforcement perpetuates as well as the dangers of the job, and they may even fear harassment (Veldman et al., 2017).
Review of Literature
The literature review is organized into three sections. The first section explores the underrepresentation of women and demonstrates the importance of giving women opportunities, promotion, and representation. The second section explores how recent socio-political events have created distrust of the police and may dissuade women from joining law enforcement. The final section examines how women are negatively portrayed by the public and are victims of coerciveness and unwanted touching in their work environment.
An Underrepresentation of Women in Law Enforcement
Historically, women have been exposed to challenges in police, courts, and corrections. Notably, law enforcement should strive to be an inclusive organization that is blind to gender. Yu (2018) contends that enhanced and strategic female-focused recruitment practices would increase female participation, and then continue to drive the numbers up.
Generational beliefs about women in law enforcement have been espoused by law enforcement agencies as well as the public. The belief that women aren’t as strong as men and can’t handle the demands of physically challenging jobs is not new and certainly not unique to law enforcement. Increased opportunities for women, however, have given women the space to showcase their skills and abilities in a wide variety of occupations and activities. Ironically, law enforcement is one of the few areas where women have not made consistent and steady progress. This slow progress is apparent considering that the first female police officer, Alice Stebbins Wells, was hired in Los Angeles in 1910 and stressed that women were qualified to adequately perform a job in policing (Ramsland, 2011).
112 years after Wells broke through gender barriers, there is another cause for celebration with the appointment of Keechant Sewell, the first female police commissioner of the NYPD. While many women have been promoted, elected, and appointed to high ranking and well-respected positions in law enforcement since the early 1900s, there is an obvious lag in progressive hiring and selection practices. Commissioner Sewell is a black woman who held other high-ranking positions in law enforcement and has blazed a trail for women and women of color specifically.
Public attitude does not favor females who seek a career in law enforcement. These perceptions have caused certain promotional opportunities to be given to men. For this reason, the system is in need of better management. Furthermore, male-centric environments become daunting to work in when you’re one of the few women on the force.
Additionally, the decrease in women is attributed to the lack of accommodations within police departments. Since women go through nine months of pregnancy and take a leave of absence (LOA), departments do not want to be held responsible for financial and work-related arrangements. Subsequently, this depicts women as incompetent at doing their work because they encounter barriers that departments to not want to address or deal with. Broadly speaking, women are often expected to stay home and take care of their children so that their husbands can work. Due to this burdensome expectation, many women are impeded from reaching their full potential. Interviews with females in law enforcement have revealed that women are aware of the personal sacrifices and risks they need to take to be a police officer. Having the conviction to achieve career goals, access to professional women as mentors, and the unconditional support of family can help women better navigate and succeed in law enforcement (Helfgott, Gunnison, Murtagh, & Navejar, 2018).
High profile cases of police brutality have eroded police-community relations (Boudreau, MacKenzie, & Simmons, 2019; Todak, 2017) and left some police officers in fear of citizen-led retaliatory attacks. Unfortunately, this has led to earlier retirement rates, further contributing to a low-staffed environment. These factors have influenced female police officers to sit behind the scenes and avoid making their uniforms visible to the public. Moreover, officers are in the media and public eye more than ever as their interactions with citizens are recorded on dash cams, body cams, or onlookers’ cell phones. Officers are aware of the tense police-community relations and it has left morale in some municipal precincts subsequently low.
Several shootings have occurred in recent years, including Breonna Taylor in Louisville in 2020, George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, Stephon Clark in Sacramento in 2018 (Boudreau, MacKenzie, & Simmons, 2019; Todak, 2017), which left the communities furious. As a result, anti-police movements and protests have erupted across the country. Community residents have vandalized police stations in attempts to send a message. These types of situations have impacted racial tensions and paranoia amongst currently employed police officers. Diaz and Nuño (2021) found that young females aspiring to be law enforcement officers may be particularly impacted by this unrest. Moreover, their findings show that the anti-police movement makes women feel overpowered and disrespected by the public. As a result, it is difficult to develop good coping mechanisms when women feel that both the system and the public are against them.
Social media outlets and platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik Tok are the primary sources of entertainment and news content for young adults. Although many college students may not seek out conventional news programming, social media platforms make news highlights, controversial comments, and provocative imagery from current political and social events very accessible (Levan & Stevenson, 2019). Diaz and Nuño (2021) conclude that exposure to news stories about police brutality and anti-police sentiment impact young women more than their male counterparts and create a distaste for policing as a viable profession. Furthermore, young women are already cognizant that law enforcement is male dominated and the added social tensions between community and the police makes the profession even less appealing and viable (Diaz & Nuño, 2021).
Women as Targets and Victims
Female officers are likely to face extensive scrutiny from the community and harsh criticisms from their colleagues and administrators. Research reveals female officers receive more complaints from their community in comparison to male officers (Patton, Asken, Fremouw, & Bemis, 2017). Additionally, they are viewed as using more excessive force to immobilize dangerous perpetrators. Scholarly studies emphasize that supportive teams and approachable female administrators are essential to provide mentorship to women, minimize stress levels, and cultivate a sense of security in their work environment (Bonner & Brimhall, 2021; Hassell, Archbold & Stichman, 2011; Veldman, et al., 2017).
It is widely known that women are disproportionately subjected to physical and sexual harassment in the workplace. Oftentimes, incidents are not reported because women fear personal and professional backlash. Scholars report that a high percentage of on-the-job maltreatment is performed by supervisors against less experienced, lower-ranked officers. This dynamic intimidates and silences victims and emboldens perpetrators (Lonsway, Paynich, & Hall, 2013). Interestingly, research finds the majority of female police officers believe that not performing a sexual act with a supervisor would discredit their work (Yu & Lee, 2019). Many female officers believe that gender harassment and bias impede their ability to feel satisfaction in their job. A 2004 Florida study indicates that 68% of female police officers had been sexually harassed, showing that sexual stigma assigned to female officers manifests in serious ways and has an impact on their lived and authentic experiences (Muhlhausen, 2019).
This project uses qualitative data collections methods to collect salient information about women in law enforcement. A snowball sample was used to identify 10 females in New York law enforcement. Three participants are retired officers who worked at the federal and local levels, and seven are currently employed by local, state, or federal agencies.
A semi-structured interview format was used, which means that some questions are predetermined while others are not. This study used four background questions and 10 predetermined questions in an open-ended format (see Appendix A), which allowed for two-way communication and enabled participants to respond freely.
Prior to the start of the interview, the focus of the project was explained to the participants. Then, the participants were told their identity would be kept anonymous. Before asking the semi-structured questions, the interviewer noted each participants’ education, job title and rank, place of employment, jurisdiction level, and years of employment. The interviews ranged from approximately 15 minutes to an hour long. Six interviews were held in person, with two conducted in the participants’ respective offices, and four were conducted virtually.
This section uses direct quotes from the officers to highlight their perspectives on their career choice, lived experiences, exchanges with colleagues, workplace environment and culture, and general observations about the future of women in law enforcement.
The first interview conducted set the tone for the remaining interviews because I expected to hear negative stories based on the review of the literature. However, Officer 1’s story was positive and inspiring:
“I always wanted to do something that was bigger than myself and I have been able to do more than 90% of the men in the department… being a female in law enforcement, you have to keep in mind there’s a lot of opportunities too, it depends what you’re interested in.”
Officer 1 is a locally employed detective in her 40’s who is cross-designated with the Department of Homeland Security. She’s worked on federal cases and has had several notable opportunities during her 17 years of employment. Her experience is clearly positive as she references her interests that opened up job opportunities. She was eager to learn and wanted to seek out opportunities for promotion, advancement, and her own personal interests. In her case, her intellectual and professional curiosity, along with a supportive work environment, led to a very rewarding career and positive perception of females in law enforcement.
When Officer 2 was asked, “did you face any barriers in the workplace?”, her response was:
“Not with my peers, but I have been very fortunate because I know that there are women who don’t get very far because they are women or they are just treated differently in general, but in this department I was never treated like that.” Officer 2 is in her late 30’s and began her career in 2007 as a patrol officer and has now been promoted as a detective in her local crime scene investigations unit.
The remarks noted by Officer 1 and Officer 2 are a sharp contrast to the response provided by Officer 8 as seen below:
“You’re taking a job away from a man who can really do it. They would also appoint someone because of their race and gender.”
Officer 8 is a retired New York Police Department (NYPD) patrol officer with 20 years of experience. She explained how she encountered racism, sexism, and sexual harassment in her precinct throughout her career. In her opinion, she was perceived as a threat to her male colleagues who likely feared that she would be promoted above them. She stated that while there was an industry expectation for equal opportunity, her daily workplace interactions did not reflect that mandate. Officer 8 felt that there was palpable hostility and her colleagues clearly “didn’t get the memo” that respect and equal treatment were paramount.Officer 4 had similar experiences to Officer 8. Although she did not encounter sexual harassment, sexual discrimination was a persistent issue within her department. Both Officer 8 and Officer 4 are in their late 50’s and were employed in the same department, which had a low proportion of female officers. The participants believed that male dominance is more valued in this field, and in turn, male officers were more valued than female officers.
In addition to emphasizing a culture of male dominance and authority in the precinct, Officer 4 highlighted the lack of support she experienced among fellow female officers. When asked to articulate her response about the presence of gender barriers, she added:
“Yes, barriers do exist. In fact, other women were the worst to me and the last to offer support. I was given the cold shoulder because I was a woman and the men thought I didn’t deserve to be in the detective bureau.”
Officer 4 is a NYPD detective that has worked at the local level for 25 years. She obtained her 4-year degree in History and is currently studying for her law degree. She states that the crime rates in the 1970s-80s motivated her to pursue a career in law enforcement because she wanted to become a part of the solution. She didn’t anticipate that other women would be unwelcoming and hostile at times. Interestingly, she expected men to be threatened by the presence of women but was surprised that her female colleagues espoused similar attitudes.
Officer 4 and Officer 10 had similar experiences with their female colleagues. Since there weren’t many women employed in the department, they may have felt their small numbers afforded them a protected or privileged status. In their view, increasing numbers of female officers would increase competition for promotions. In reference to this, Officer 10 states:
“Women are not welcoming to other women, they are very competitive, and reserved towards one another.”
Officer 10 is also in her late 50's and is retired. She worked for 4 years as a probation officer and 25 years in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). She states:
“I was denied one promotional opportunity because I was a woman, but I got along with the men.”
When asked if her statement was her opinion, she said administrators unapologetically told her she wasn’t a candidate for promotion because of gender.
Intersections of Race and Gender
Officer 9 is a retired NYPD sergeant in her late 50’s and did not have a consistently positive experience in her precinct throughout her professional career. Her experience is similar to those reported by Officer 4 and Officer 8. These three officers began their law enforcement careers in the 1970s and 80s, when very few women were recruited into the field. When asked, “Do you think that there are equal opportunities for all employees in your department?”, Officer 9 responded with:
“No. Nothing equal. It is all a numbers game and perception.”
Officer 9 believes that women were hired as “window dressing” to make departments appear progressive, when in reality opportunities were minimal and gender barriers were evident. Her specific experience as a black female officer is also more nuanced than other participants because of her racial identity. Officer 9 was promoted to sergeant, and she believes that her race combined with her gender made her an exceptional female which stood out as a desirable candidate. During this time period, white female officers were not being promoted as often as minority female officers because the NYPD was obligated to make their departments racially diverse.
Officer 3 and Officer 5 are minority women and interestingly had contrasting experiences in their respective departments. Officer 3 is a 50-year-old woman who is currently employed as a patrol officer, has been in the workforce for 18 years and earned one promotion. She states:
“My work environment is changing because I was the only female in my department…they just hired two others and for about ten years I was the only female with 74 men.”
Officer 5, a current state trooper in her early 30’s with 10 years of experience, reported a positive experience overall, but states:
“It’s definitely tough for women because I feel that this is a man’s game… a lot of people now still think that women shouldn’t be in law enforcement.”
Officer 6 and Officer 7 are both in their mid 20’s and were the youngest of the participants. Their interviews revealed that younger officers have not had the same difficulties in law enforcement as their experiences differed greatly in comparison to retired officers. Officer 6, an employed state trooper with 5 years of experience, discussed her passion for her work and the community she protects. Officer 7 works for the Department of Homeland Security and plans to earn advanced degrees in the near future. She believes that her job has given her excellent opportunities and looks forward to more advancement. Officer 7 states:
“Although I haven’t been on the job for too long, I’m thankful for the opportunities that I have been given within such a short period of time.”
An important theme throughout the interviews was the intersection of gender and race. Interestingly, Officer 8 and Officer 9 discussed race as either an impediment or a stepping-stone to receiving a higher position within the NYPD. Officer 9 was promoted to sergeant, an advancement she attributes to the fact that the NYPD wanted to hire a candidate who reflected the race of the community. In contrast, Officer 8, a white woman, believes that she did not make sergeant because the community was predominantly Hispanic and black. As a result of her denial for promotion, she remained on the patrol for 20 years.
It is important to note that Officer 2 was the only participant who addressed the current socio-political climate. She was emotional as she recalled the police shootings that drew widespread media attention and subsequent anti-police movements, protests, and rallies in response to police brutality. She discussed how she felt unsafe and acutely aware of negative community sentiment. Officer 2 said her family was concerned for her safety and that she had to assure them she would be OK on the job. She felt it was important to stand with her fellow officers, but also knew her community was collectively hurting. Officer 2 was disappointed when her lieutenant said it was nearly impossible to hire female officers during these volatile periods because they were not coming to their scheduled interviews or returning calls from the police department.
The research in this study was conducted to explore gender disparities in law enforcement and the gaps in scholarly and empirical literature noted by the 2019 NIJ report with respect to the experiences of women in law enforcement. The interview responses provide useful data to explain how negative and positive experiences can encourage or deter women from pursuing law enforcement as a career. The participants told both positive and negative stories when they reflected on their daily experiences in their communities and workplaces, as well as their interactions with male and female colleagues or administrators. There are notable similarities and differences between the participants. In general, the 3 retired officers shared similar experiences and their comments capture decades when there was widely practiced and rarely punished gender-based discrimination in law enforcement. On the contrary, the currently employed officers shared unique experiences that were different from similarly situated female officers. Their experiences appear to be dependent on other factors such as their community, their job title and rank, and their relationship with colleagues.
The work environment for currently employed women is more welcoming. They have greater opportunities, and work experience ranging from 4 to 25 years. Retired officers’ work experience ranged from 20 to 25 years. In the late 1970’s and 80’s, women in law enforcement experienced additional adversity and did not have equal opportunities in comparison to women who are currently employed in law enforcement. Both categories experienced sexual discrimination while retired officers experienced both sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. In addition, the retired officers stated that they knew multiple women who were sexually harassed but chose to stay silent for fear of losing their jobs.
Participants’ responses indicate that gender disparity is still present in law enforcement, but in terms of equality and opportunities, departments have shifted for the better and women have been exposed to improved work environments. We could see how the precedent established by the experiences of former generations of female officers have influenced the experiences of current ones. In addition, findings imply that half of the female police officers interviewed encountered adverse experiences while the other half did not. The participants who did not characterize their work environment as negative stated that the male officers treated them fairly and with respect. On the other hand, the majority stated that women in the field were more likely to be unfriendly because of fears of increased competition.
Limitations and Future Research
While valuable information has been provided by participants, it is important to note that there are four major limitations in this project: validity of responses, generalizability of results, omission of race considerations, and participant access.
First, with respect to response validity, it may be difficult to know if the respondents recall events and characterize their experiences accurately. For example, if a respondent says gender discrimination prevented her promotion, it’s impossible to know whether or not there were other circumstances at play. Second, the results cannot be generalized because the sample size is too small. Third, while race is an important consideration in law enforcement, I wasn’t confident that using a snowball sample of participants would yield a diverse subject pool. I made the decision to focus solely on gender and found it interesting that for the most part, the participants prioritized their gender identity while minimizing their racial identity. Finally, in the early stages of this project, I proposed to interview five employed and five retired females in law enforcement. However, it was difficult to locate and get commitments from retired female police officers. This could be because some of the contacts for retired officers, which were provided by registered participants, may have been outdated. Therefore, the majority of the data came from female officers who are currently employed. Another limitation is that there was an overrepresentation of women who worked locally, especially among currently employed participants.
Future research should specifically explore the impact of political events, police brutality incidents, and negative media portrayals on low female participation. In addition, research should explore the intersectionality of race and gender in law enforcement to better understand how women face or fear double marginalization in the workplace.
In conclusion, the results of the interviews with women in law enforcement highlight the diverse work experiences that punctuate the participants’ careers. The women shared personal reflections and interpretations about their interactions with male and female colleagues, access to promotion or denied opportunities, and overall job satisfaction. The socio-cultural events that I anticipated would dominate the conversation were only mentioned by one participant, Officer 2. Initially, I intended to include an additional group to the study–aspiring law enforcement officers–to gauge their perceptions of anti-police sentiment and job safety. Young women may also find that parents discourage them from embarking on a potentially dangerous career. The presence or absence of children and being married or single may also impact a woman’s decision to be a police officer.
Policing needs more women because they are capable of handling a variety of situations and possess excellent communication skills. Broadly speaking, women can better handle sexual victimization cases and are viewed as more approachable by women and children who are the most vulnerable victims in the Criminal Justice System. Positive representations of women in a variety of jurisdictions and rank levels can serve as ambassadors for recruitment and undoubtedly inspire more women to enter the police force. Furthermore, NYPD Commissioner Sewell’s appointment is an unequivocal milestone that is sure to highlight the visibility of women in law enforcement and promote the desirability of policing as a viable and rewarding career to all women across the country. The future looks bright for women seeking to enter a career in policing or advance their rank in law enforcement.
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