Lack of Women in Law Enforcement

By Kacy Crowley

In the United States, women have been disproportionately underrepresented in the law enforcement field for decades. The following case study will explore the history of women in law enforcement while addressing the current statistical data highlighting the underrepresentation and undervaluation of women police officers in our society. I will address several feminist theoretical concepts that will help shed light on the complexities of women in law enforcement. Then, I will discuss two policies that appear to hinder the advancements of female police officers. Finally, I will apply Heifetz’s (1994) leadership practices and Schien’s (2016) humble consulting designs to this challenge.

History & Trends of Women in Law Enforcement

According to the National Center for Women & Policing (2000), women accounted for 13.7% of line operation positions, 10.3% of supervisory posts, and 7.3% of top command positions. Small, rural police departments contain even fewer female officers overall, rarely having women in supervisory roles or even sworn officer positions (Barratt, Bergman, & Thompson, 2014). However, these numbers are up from 7.6% in 1987 to nearly 12% in 2007 of female officers in local police departments; in 2007, 6.5% of state police officers were women, compared to 3.8% in 1987 (Langton, 2010). These trends suggest that the hiring and retention of female police officers have stalled, creating this idea of a ‘leaking pipeline’ (Bailyn, 2003).  Shelley, Morabito, and Tobin-Gurley (2011) would describe this as an example of how hiring factors and other patriarchal, cultural preferences affect the funneling out of women in many male-dominated professions.

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Underrepresented & Undervalued

Women are underrepresented and undervalued in law enforcement, especially in rural communities. Currently, women make up 46% of the entire workforce; however only 13% of the law enforcement workforce (Crooke, 2013). Although the total is 13%, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), most of this employment is from large urban police departments (Crooke, 2013; Langton, 2010). There are many small, rural police departments that have none or just a very small percentage of women in their police department.

Starting in the mid-1990s, organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) have been working hard to explore women in policing (Crooke, 2013). The NAWLEE has focused on mentoring women in executive positions, guiding them into more leadership roles. The IACP and NAWLEE have found that women can be just as effective, and even more so than male law enforcement officers where communication and community policing is involved (Crooke, 2013; Rabe-Hemp, 2009). The following are a generalized statements from some of the findings: (1) Women show higher degrees of competency in intellectual and strategic situations compared to their male counterparts; (2) Women still face discrimination, sexual harassment, and peer intimidation in their roles; (3) As mentors are used at higher levels of law enforcement, the number of women interested in promotions increases; (4) The media is shifting its portrayal of women law enforcement to being competent and effective; (5) More than two-thirds of criminal justice students polled support the increase of women law enforcement officers; (6) Women law enforcement officers have a unique skill set for effectively carrying out the new community model of policing, which is less reactive and more proactive (Crooke, 2013).

Feminist theory in a gendered society

The feminist perspective was the focal point for the work of Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. In her book The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (1987), Smith argued that historically the field of sociology has overlooked and diminished women, making them the other. Smith (1987) claimed that women’s experiences are essential for women’s rights. For example, Smith (1987) suggested that because women have historically been the caregivers of society, men have been able to utilize their free time for more abstract thinking and conceptualization, which is viewed as more valuable and important.  In recognition of Smith’s own standpoint, as a mother and working woman, she shed light on the fact that sociology was lacking in the acknowledgment of standpoint (Appelrouth & Edles, 2007). Smith (1987) determined that for minority groups, the constant separation between the way women experience the world versus the reality of their social experiences and how they continually having to adapt to the view of the group creates oppression.

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Smith: Standpoint theory and bifurcated consciousness.

Therefore, the everyday lives of women seem invisible, rather than as part of human culture and history. In order for the women in law enforcement to be valued, their experiences need to be told.  The female police officers have to be part of sociological research and have their voices heard from their own perspectives.

Smith (1987) described standpoint theory as a way for women to claim rights over their lived experiences and the knowledge they gained from being women.  She emphasized that the knowledge women have is based on the position they encompass by being members of an oppressed minority group. This realization of where a minority member stands within society can lead to a split between their experience and what the dominate group is perceiving as their experience. When women learn to internalize the perspective of society, it is a male-centered perspective that they must relate to.

In other words, Smith (1987) stated that women, like other minority groups in society, develop a bifurcated consciousness where they live with both the reality of actual experience and the reality of social expectations. Dorothy Smith coined the term bifurcation of consciousness, which borrows concepts of Du Bois’ (1903) double consciousness of the black man “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of the others” (p. 5). Women in the law enforcement struggle to maintain a sense of femininity while not appearing too masculine, in order fit-in to the hyper-masculine environment of many police departments (Shelley, Morabito, & Tobin-Gurley, 2011).

The social sanction for deviating from norms around gender performance range from commentary or funny looks to ostracism or violence. Shelley, Morabito, and Tobin-Gurley (2011) described how in policing, women can be seen as rude if portraying masculine attributes, while a male police officer will appear professional in the same cultural setting.

Kanter: Tokenism.

There are many complexities that developed when females integrated into male-dominated settings. For instance, Rosabeth Kanter (1993) believed that women needed to be in greater numbers in the workforce in order for there to be equality. This equity would equalize males and females, not just in numbers, but be gendered cultural standards. Kanter (1993) described the token effect as the social relationship of a small number of individuals in a larger differing group, i.e. the minority within a majority.

Another example is Rosen, Durand, Bliese, Halverson, Rothbert, and Harrison, (1996) surveys with 19 combat service support companies that found as the number of females in a company increased, the group cohesion and effectiveness decreased among male soldiers. In contrast, the increased number of female soldiers did not negatively affect female soldier group cohesion, effectiveness, or performance. Rosen and colleagues (1996) suggested that the empirical evidence from their study supported the minority-proportion hypothesis and better explained the impact of gender ratio on unit cohesion than Kanter’s theory of tokenism. Their hypothesis describes how the relative size of the minority affects the competitive nature within the entire group. The greater the minority group size, the more discrimination that will be done against the minority members because of the competitive threat to the majority. This hypothesis is relatable to the funneling out effect that is a possible explanation for the lack of female law enforcement officers in the department today (Shelley, Morabito, & Tobin-Gurley, 2011).

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After decades of battling for gender equality and equal opportunities, female police officers describe using a divergent set of police behaviors in their interactions with citizens, including more empathy and communication. In this feminized form of policing, women not only separated themselves from their male coworkers but had to balance gender roles and police work (Rabe-Hemp, 2009). Female police officers find themselves straddling the gender lines.  They are constantly negotiating gender roles while performing their police work in the male-dominated workforce of law enforcement.

Policy implications on recruitment of female police officers.

Affirmative Action Policy

The potential advantages to increasing female officer recruits seem obvious. For example, victims of domestic abuse and sexual trauma, who are reportedly more female, find it easier to discuss traumatic events with female officers (Holderness, Moen, & Hull, 2014; Lott, 2000). Lott (2000) conducted a cross-sectional time-series analysis of city police departments in 1987, 1990, and 1993 of Affirmative Action effects on crime rates. The study concluded that hiring women police officers did not affect the crime rates; however, the use of Affirmative Action for hiring female police officers has, in many cases, inadvertently created disadvantages for women police officers. The Affirmative Action policies differed across departments, but all had changed physical testing for female recruits.  This change in physical testing created a double standard that appeared to favor female recruits over males. This differential treatment encouraged a rift between male and female police officers (Rabe-Hemp, 2009).

Veteran Preference Policy

At the end of 2013, Governor Tom Corbett announced that Pennsylvania State Police cadets could get a waiver on some or all of the 60 college credit recruitment if s/he had military or law experience (Silver, 2013). For example, the veteran could waive 30 college credits if s/he had served two or 60 college credits if s/he had four years of active duty service.

Gendered policy research by Shelley, Morabito, and Tobin-Gurley (2011) shed light on the issue of how a hierarchal, military-based command structure with institutionalized patterns of control and subordination between command staff and line-level employees creates a struggle for women police officers. The law enforcement agencies within the United Stated operate at this paramilitary command level. In return, this causes women to have to “navigate the overt and increasing covert forms of control and segregation that are legitimized through the military based management style of many police agencies” (Shelley, Morabito, & Tobin-Gurley, 2011, p. 354).

Will this recent Veteran Preference status of replacing college credits requirement (four years military experience or law enforcement experience replacing the prior 60 college credits requirement) for law enforcement officers hinder or improve recruitment of female Pennsylvania State Police officers? Future research would need to address the statistics of police officers who are both women and military veterans. Also, this potential research would need to review the possible reasons why female law enforcement officers only consist of about 15% of all law enforcement personnel; this is comparable to the military.  This trend of recruiting military veterans into law enforcement agencies may be an explanation of why the number of women police officers has not risen over 14% (Home, 2006). Prospective research findings would hopefully shed light on possible policy implication(s) that can be used to improve female law enforcement recruitment.

Applying Heifetz and Schein: Leadership practice with humble consulting

Conflict in values & known vs. unknown.

Heifetz (1994) attempts to define leadership and offers principles designed to help leaders lead more effectively. If problems are defined by the disparity between values and circumstances, then an adaptive challenge is a particular kind of problem where applying technical skills and knowledge cannot be used as a solution. Heifetz (1994) addresses how problems that can be solved through the knowledge of experts are technical challenges, while problems that experts cannot solve are called adaptive challenges.  Solutions to adaptive problems are at the core of the leader, where the leader relies on her beliefs and values to bring about change. Heifetz (1994) stresses that adaptive problems require thinking outside of the box and viewing the situation in the various lenses. People must learn new ways of behaving and adopt new values and attitudes. In order for leaders and organizations to sustain change, people must internalize the change itself.

For instance, the adaptive challenge for the lack of women in law enforcement is that there needs to be a consensus about what is important for law enforcement in communities. There is a conflict in values.  Policewomen are effectively carrying out the new community model of policing by being less reactive and more proactive. Female police officers are quick-witted and strategically effective in communicating with civilians to deescalate situations (Crooke, 2013).

According to Heifetz (1994), leaders need to take risks and make the changes needed. This will require thinking outside the box and viewing the women as essential components to the police department in the various lenses. The police department leaders the entire department of justice must internalize the change itself, in order for change to sustain and become the norm.

Schein (2016) connection: As leaders in law enforcement & humble consultants.

Schein (2016) describes how organizations are dealing with new complex problems, new kinds of client systems, and a new urgency in our clients. He explains the importance of processing concluding, which is allowing the clients to be part of the problem-solving process (Schein, 2016). It is vital to engage in humble consulting in order to help “tell you what attitude to strike with your clients, how to respond to their very first inquiry, and help you to accept that initially, you might not know what to do” (Schein, 2016, p. 13).

A humble consultant will ask questions based on that only the person being asked could answer, based on her perspective, thoughts, feelings, experiences, and values.  Humble consulting is not about leading or giving advice, in contrast, it’s about helping the person to explore the situation (Schein, 2016).  The leaders in law enforcement need to remember to engage their curiosity to understand the values and culture of the women and men in their departments. For instance, the leaders could initiate mentoring programs for the women police officers to ensure that their voices are heard and that support is maintained within the law enforcement community.

Mentoring is essential to maintaining peer/co-worker connections and advancements in promotions with the law enforcement career (Barratt, Bergman, & Thompson, 2014; Moore, 2010; Bowers, 2014). Women struggle to be both feminine and masculine to fit-in to this environment; it is costly upholding a hegemonic masculine workplace.  Consequently, if there are no social connections with male co-workers, advancements in the female police officers’ career will be stalled. Schein (2016) stresses the need to maintain Level II relationships, which would be essential for a mentoring program.

In Barratt, Bergman, and Thompson’s (2014) research on how gender roles and sexual orientation can have possible effects on the mentoring processing for women in law enforcement, they discovered through the online survey data that gender roles affect heterosexual and homosexual female police officers differently for career mentoring. For example, in order for heterosexual women to be allowed into the inner circle of their male peers, they cannot display masculinity and femininity. In contrast, Barratt, Bergman, and Thompson (2014) also found that homosexual women are expected to be both high in masculinity and high in femininity to be admitted to an inner circle.  However, the less gendered role orientations homosexual women display, the less they are mentored.

A potential approach for gaining more women applicants into law enforcement would be to address this issue of career mentoring and covert gender discrimination.  Women are essential to law enforcement.  It’s time to rectify the lack of women in this career.


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