Women in law enforcement

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Women in law enforcement agencies have typically been outnumbered by men. The first policewoman in Germany was recruited in 1903, the first in the USA appeared in 1910 and the first in England just a few years later. Since that time many law enforcement agencies have sought to reduce discrimination and increase the numbers of women working in this sector.

Overview by country[edit]


Women have played an important role in enforcement since the early 1990s in Austria. So much so, that on 1 Sept. 2017 Michaela Kardeis became the first female chief of federal Austrian police, which includes all police units in the country and a staff of 29,000 police officers.[1]


Henriette Arendt was a German Policewoman in 1903.[2]


In 1908, the first three women: Agda Hallin, Maria Andersson and Erica Ström, was employed in the Swedish Police Authority in Stockholm upon the request of the Swedish National Council of Women, who referred to the example of Germany.[3] Their trial period was deemed successful and from 1910 onward, policewomen were employed in other Swedish cities. However, they did not have the same rights as their male colleagues: their title were Polissyster (Police Sister), and their tasks concerned women and children, such as taking care of children brought under custody, perform body searches on women, and other similar tasks which were considered unsuitable for male police officers.[3]

In 1930, the Polissyster were given extended rights and were allowed to be present at houses searches in women's homes, conduct interrogations of females related to sexual crimes, and patrol reconnaissance work.[3] In 1944, the first formal police course for women opened; in 1954, the title "police sister" were dropped and police officer allowed for both men and women, and from 1957, women received equal police education to that of their male colleagues.[3]

United Kingdom[edit]

In March 2016, 28.6% of police officers in England and Wales were women.[4]This was an increase from 23.3% in 2007.[4] Notable women in the police forces include Cressida Dick, the current Commissioner (chief) of the Metropolitan Police Service.

World War I provided an impetus for the first appointment of female officers. The first woman to be appointed a police officer with full powers of arrest was Edith Smith, who was sworn in to Grantham Borough Police in 1915. A small number were appointed in the ensuing years. Policewomen would originally be in separate teams or divisions to the men, such as the A4 division in the Metropolitan Police. Their duties were different, with the early policewomen being limited to dealing with women and children. This separation ended in the 1970s.

Until 1998, women in the police force had their rank prefixed with a letter W (e.g. "WPC" for Constable).

United States[edit]

Capt Edyth Totten and women police in 1918 in New York
Mounted police woman in Boston in 1980

The first policewomen in the United States included Marie Owens, who joined the Chicago Police department in 1891; Lola Baldwin, who was sworn in by the city of Portland in 1908; Fanny Bixby, also sworn into office in 1908 by the city of Long Beach, California; and Alice Stebbins Wells who was initiated into the Los Angeles Police Department in 1910.[5] Since then, women have made progress in the world of law enforcement. The percentage of women has gone up from 7.6% in 1987, to 12% in 2007 across the United States.[6] Despite these strides, women are underrepresented in law enforcement within the United States. Women only represent 12% of all law enforcement agencies, of which there are over 14,000.[7] Also, throughout all of these agencies there are only 219 women who are ranked a chief. According to Johnson(2013) data from the FBI in 2011 showed that women only represented 12% out of 700,000 police officers in the U.S however, it is only partially higher from 11.2% in 2001.[7] Very few women are ranked as sergeant or above.[7] So not only are women under-reported in law enforcement they are faced with a glass ceiling and are unable to move up in ranks within their departments. A lot of women do not even try to reach these higher positions because of fear of getting unfair treatment from the male coworkers. Since very few women receive guidance in overcoming these obstacles, the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) has been involved since 1995 to guide women into having executive positions and help guide new female officers to reach up to achieving these leadership roles. It is a difficult journey for woman in law enforcement.[8] It has long been known that agencies used to discriminate against the women by not hiring them simply because of their gender. Only in the last twenty years have departments been made to not hire a candidate based on gender.[9] When women were allowed to get jobs within law enforcement, they were often given administrative or traffic jobs rather than actually going out on the street. Today that has changed; there are more women who are getting jobs within the tactical departments, such as S.W.A.T.

Local law enforcement agencies are not the only agencies to have a lower representation of women on their staff. Federal agencies are also underrepresented when it comes to women. Here are the statistics for women in federal agencies as of 2008:

Women are even less represented in local departments. Here are the statistics for these departments as of 2008:

  • Medium-sized departments 9%
  • Small sized departments 10%
  • Large Local Departments 15%
  • Small local police departments 6%
  • Small local sheriffs departments 4%[10]

Between 2005 and 2011 the female physical ability test pass rates were 80% lower than their male counterparts.[11]

Police Departments do not only have fewer police officers in them, they also hire fewer policewomen compared to policemen. Women are often screened out of the hiring process early on because departments are looking for candidates with high upper body strength and previous military experience.[12] Between 2005-2007 the female pass rate of the physical ability test was 80% lower than their male counterparts.[11]


Delegates of the 3rd Annual Women in Policing Conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. March 4, 2014.
Police women in Chennai, India in 2010

Despite women being in law enforcement for over one hundred years, they are still faced with discrimination and harassment. Policewomen often face discrimination from their fellow officers and many women encounter the "glass ceiling", meaning they are not able to move up in rank and can only go so far, as far as the imposing ceiling will allow.[13] Women are taught to overlook and minimize the discrimination they face.[14]

Discrimination and problems towards women in law enforcement are not just happening in the station house. Many policewomen that are married to other officers face a higher risk of domestic violence. Currently 27,000-36,000 female police officers may be a victim of domestic violence. Domestic Violence goes up to nearly 40%, from a normal societal level of 30%, in households of officers.[14]

While women are not as likely to be physically assaulted while on the job, they do face more sexual harassment, most of which comes from fellow officers. In 2009 77% of policewomen from thirty-five different counties have reported sexual harassment for their colleagues.[15] Women are asked to “go behind the station house” or are told other inappropriate things while on the job. Not only that, but there is often physical sexual harassment that takes place in the station house. So it is not only verbal, but also physical sexual harassment that policewomen face on a daily basis.[16]

Policewomen also experience greater mobility, frequently being moved from one assignment to another. As of 1973, 45% of policewomen and 71% of policemen remained in their regular uniforms, 31% of policewomen and 12% of policemen were given inside assignments, and 12% of policewomen and 4% of policemen had other street assignments.[16] Policewomen are less likely to be promoted within the department (going from officer to sergeant, sergeant to lieutenant, etc.) and are also more likely to be given different assignments and are less likely to keep the same beat (patrol position).

Gender inequality plays a major role in women in the law enforcement field. Women in law enforcement are often inexplicitly represented by their male counterparts and many face harassment (Crooke). Many women do not try to strive for higher positions because they may fear abuse by male coworkers, while few women receive the guidance they need to overcome these obstacles that they face. Many women may feel they need to prove themselves to be accepted because they feel they are expected to make a mistake otherwise.

One conception of female officers is they are more capable in communicating with citizens because they come off as more disarming and they can talk their way through difficult situations.


Multiple studies have shown that black women in particular suffer from a matrix of domination and discrimination as they negotiate the politics of institutional racism, affirmative action, and tokenism.[17] As the section above notes, there is no single “female experience” of the policing profession. Collins (1990) and Martin (1994) argue that race gives black female police officers a distinct feminist consciousness of their experiences. These experiences are colored by stereotypes attributed to black women as “hot mamas,” “welfare queens,” and “mammies.”These caricatures are contrasted by perceptions of white women as “pure,” “submissive,” and “domestic.”[18] While both sets of stereotypes are problematic, those attributed to black women lead to more suspicion and hostility in the workplace. Black women report receiving less protection and respect from their male colleagues. For many, black female officers lack the “pedestal” of femininity enjoyed by white women in the profession.[19] In a study done by the College of Police and Security Studies, some 29% of white female officers acknowledged that black women in law enforcement have a harder time than white woman.[20] Discrimination among female police officers also seems to be prevalent even though black police officers, both male and female only make up 12% of all local departments.[21] There is also the issue of women being excluded from special units, with at least 29% of the white women and 42% of the black women mentioning this phenomenon.[20]

Susan E. Martin (1994) conducted a study in Chicago interviewing both male and female command staff and officers on their perceptions of discrimination in the workplace. The results of this study showed that in general, women experienced more discrimination than men. Experiences differed within races as well, with black women reporting higher rates of discrimination than black men.[19]


Female police supporting LGBT pride parade in California.

The sexual orientation of a police officer can also influence the experiences of that officer. Women with non-heterosexual orientations deal with an additional set of stereotypes, exclusion, and harassment. Galvin-White and O'Neil (2015) recently examined how lesbian police officers negotiate their identities and relationships in the workplace. As they note, lesbian police officers must negotiate an identity that is "invisible" in that it is not necessarily detected by sight. Therefore, it is largely up to the individual to decide whether or not they come out to her colleagues. Many decide not to come out due to the stigmas surrounding LGBT identities, which may manifest themselves through discriminatory hiring processes and promotions. Galvin-White and O'Neil demonstrate that the decision to come out varies by individual and across the profession. The most salient factor influencing an individual's decision to come out is the extent of homophobia in the work environment.[22]

Just as women are discriminated against in the police force for not fulfilling the traditional male traits of a police officer, so are members of the LGBT community for challenging traditional gender norms. While there have been recent efforts to recruit gay and lesbian police officers to boost diversity in the profession, the stigmas and challenges facing these officers remain. Research shows that lesbian officers who have come out are often excluded by both their male and female colleagues for not conforming to traditional femininity. Many of the studies Galvin-White and O'Neil cite report that lesbian police officers are often not able to trust their colleagues for backup or protection.[22]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Susan Ehrlich Martin, Nancy C. Jurik: Doing Justice, Doing Gender: Women in Legal and Criminal Justice Occupations (Women in the Criminal Justice System), 2nd edition (2006), Sage, ISBN 978-1412927208


  1. ^ "ZiB2 Interview with Lou Lorenz-Dittlbacher (in German)". ORF.AT. Retrieved 1 Sept. 2017.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  2. ^ History, European Network of Policewomen, in German, retrieved 22 January 2015
  3. ^ a b c d Läkartidningen nr 47 2008 volym 105
  4. ^ a b "Police workforce, England and Wales, 31 March 2016" (PDF). Gov.uk. 21 July 2016. Retrieved 18 July 2017. 
  5. ^ Eisenberg, Adam (September 9, 2010). "LAPD hired nation's first policewoman". Los Angeles Daily News. Retrieved 19 July 2014. 
  6. ^ "Women in Law Enforcement". Discover Policing. March 11, 2002. Retrieved 4 October 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c Johnson, Kevin (August 14, 2013). "Women move into law enforcement's highest ranks". USA Today. Retrieved October 4, 2013. 
  8. ^ https://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/07-2013/women_in_law_enforcement.asp
  9. ^ Price, Barbara (1996). "FEMALE POLICE OFFICERS IN THE UNITED STATES". Policing In Central and Eastern Europe: Comparing Firsthand Knowledge with Experience from the West. College of Police and Security Studies. Retrieved 4 October 2013. 
  10. ^ a b Langton, Lynn (June 2010). "Women in Law Enforcement, 1987–2008" (PDF). Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved 4 October 2013. 
  11. ^ a b Fields, Cassi (July 13, 2012). "Are Physical Tests Fair to Females?". POLICE Magazine. Retrieved 4 October 2013. 
  12. ^ "Women in Law Enforcement: Two steps forward, three steps back". PoliceOne. 
  13. ^ "Police Chief Magazine - View Article". policechiefmagazine.org. 
  14. ^ a b "Female officers surviving police perpetrated domestic violence - Abuse of power - Diane Wetendorf Inc". abuseofpower.info. 
  15. ^ "Sexual Harassment Among Male and Female Police Officers". Providentia. 
  16. ^ a b Breaking and Entering Policewomen on Patrol. Martin. University of California Press. London. 1980.
  17. ^ Greene, Helen Taylor (2000). "Black Females in Law Enforcement: A Foundation for Future Research". Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. 
  18. ^ Collins, Patricia (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge. 
  19. ^ a b Martin, Susan E. (1998). ""Outsider within" the Station House: The Impact of Race and Gender on Black Women Police". Social Problems. 
  20. ^ a b Price, Barbara Raffel. (1996). ""Female Police Officers In The United States"". Retrieved October 30, 2016. 
  21. ^ Kesling, Ben (May 14, 2015). "Percentage of African-Americans in U.S. Police Departments Remains Flat Since 2007". Retrieved October 30, 2016. 
  22. ^ a b Galvin-White, Christine M.; O'Neil, Eryn Nicole (2015). "Lesbian Police Officers' Interpersonal Working Relationships and Sexuality Disclosure: A Qualitative Study." Feminist Criminology.