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Together we are stronger

3 challenges women face in law enforcement

25 Jan 2022 8:11 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Juan Pereira Volunteer First Responder with Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support, IPSA member

Studies document that women in law enforcement continually face a variety of obstacles, including discrimination, sexual harassment and negative attitudes by their peers. Disparities continue to reveal this despite a long history of positive reforms in law enforcement.

These imbalances delay the long-existing efforts toward positive reforms in policing. Even though minor challenges still exist, Canadian law enforcement has committed efforts to bridge gender disparities, thus offering good grounds for a benchmark.

Recent reports and commentaries on women reveal a nationwide outcry over disproportionate enjoyment of freedom, and often, overt gender and racial discrimination galvanize demands for more committed efforts towards police reform. 

Below are three specific challenges facing women in today’s police force.

  1. Gender disparities: Gender disparities in law enforcement result from socially prescribed norms of police personality, male officer resistance, discrimination and job promotion, and advancement. These attitudes develop during everyday interactions. Society generally perceives law enforcement as a gendered occupation or a complete form of hegemonic masculinity because the occupation demands physicality, an aggressive and violent character, competitiveness, heterosexual orientations (such as patriarchal views and terminology on women), and strict and clear in-group/outgroup variations. These behavioral norms and cultural expectations end up discriminating against women entering law enforcement. They make it difficult and stressful for women’s full integration. The dominance of inferior attitudes about women and gender stereotypes in the policing occupation further hamstrings the profession’s ability to hire, retain, and promote women officers.

  2. Unequal representation in the workforce: The first time a major American police department had a woman chief was in 1964 when the Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau appointed Chief Penny Harrington. Throughout her career, Harrington, who found only twelve women officers in the department, faced widespread challenges, including sexism and blatant harassment. Hundreds of her gender discrimination lawsuits and complaints in Portland, Oregon, initiated changes significantly. The Rodney King beating of 1991 in Los Angeles resulted in the founding of the Cristopher Commission. The Commission largely reformed the Los Angeles Police Department, including a proposal to hire 50 percent women in the department that increased women's representation for several years.

    Legislation such as the Federal Equal Employment Law, Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, Justice System Improvement Act of 1978, and Equal Employment Opportunity Act have forced many employers to adopt affirmative action measures to create equal employment
    opportunities for both women and marginalized groups in policing. As a result, the number of women and racial minorities employed in the police force has improved. Nevertheless, scholars continue to regard U.S. law enforcement as one of the most gendered occupations in modern society. The percentage of sworn women officers (13 percent of the law enforcement) is way under the general labor force. Policing organizations not only underrepresent women; they are also underutilizing them. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) reports that despite women making up more than the U.S. population, the U.S. justice system usually deploys most of the 13 percent women officers in urban areas, large law enforcement agencies and communities with high levels of ethnic and racial diversities. Certain populations tend to lack trust in law enforcement because they feel a lack of equal representation in the system.

  3. Diverse community settings: The behaviors and interactions that occur within the canteen culture also promote expressive talk encouraging racist and sexist canteen (backstage interaction area) banters. In a highly masculine, white, heterosexual police force, these behaviors contribute to differential treatment of women officers. These officers continue to re-express the attitudes held toward the formerly recognized marginalized groups, thus forming the interior culture. Sexist and racist behaviors within the informal police interactions develop two sets of dominant perspectives. On the one hand, the heterosexual, male officers resent institutionalized diversity. On the other hand, the women, minority, ethnic, lesbian, and gay officers hold a persistent imperious, male, heterosexist view. These deeply rooted perspectives and practices continually influence police organization and culture.

Two possible interventions

  1. Understanding of the context of police work: Various scholars on diversity in law enforcement have suggested possible interventions to decrease barriers and challenges women encounter in policing. On December 3rd and 4th, 2018, approximately 100 women researchers attended the Research Summit on Women in Policing in Washington, D.C., and suggested, among other measures, support networks, sponsorship, mentoring, and enforcing and strengthening harassment policies. The Women’s Leadership Academy in Newark, New Jersey is successful support to enable women applicants to meet academic and physical fitness requirements while enhancing peer networks of women officers supporting individuals’ success. Building networks increase peer support and mentorships, which have been essential in retaining women, African American, and Hispanic officers in Nevada, Las Vegas, and the Southeastern U.S .within law enforcement.

  2. Policy development: Research repeatedly identifies Canada as an example of a country committed to removing gender barriers in policing. The country has introduced affirmative action plans which establish positive discrimination by providing special opportunities from minority groups. For example, the Equity Employment Act of Canada mandates employers to proactively seek minority candidates (including women, aboriginals, and visible minorities) as a measure to increase workplace diversity. The employment equity and affirmative actions that target employment equity by recruitment of visible minority candidates have increased diversity in law enforcement.


Women entering policing services are at a disadvantage because of their gender and racial or ethnic backgrounds. Studies have shown that the greatest barriers for women in law enforcement are the attitudes and perceptions of women. Law enforcement agencies establish policies aiming at increasing the number of women in policing while overlooking the longstanding barriers remaining within. As the two groups have learned throughout history, change is a long process that needs persistence and full success needs persistence. More importantly, women are vital assets to any law enforcement organization and through dedication and hard work to recognize their contributions, they need to receive equal respect as their male counterparts do. Therefore, women ought to recognize and acknowledge the significant victories in their endeavor to realize fairness and recognition within the law enforcement profession.

About the Author

Juan Pereira received his education background in Police Foundations from Centennial College. He is a student at Wilfred Laurier University working on his BA in Criminology and Policing he hopes to complete his bachelor’s and to dive into his Master of Public Safety with Wilfred Laurier University. He has seven years of experience as a volunteer first responder in various public safety organization. He has also been a volunteer with Police Organizations and Crime Stopper Programs. He also has taken on Youth Coordinator Positions and Youth mentorships with other organizations. Email him at

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