Understanding Barriers that Affect Recruiting and Retaining Female Police Officers: A Mixed Method Approach
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Women are underrepresented in policing, and research has demonstrated that police departments must engage in active recruiting to attract female applicants. However, little research has been conducted on the barriers that keep women who are interested in a career in policing from becoming police officers. The present study addresses this limitation by adding to the current knowledge of women’s experiences from initial contact with the police department through the police academy. Guided by the theory of tokenism and the gender model of work, the present study employed a mixed method design to provide insight into why the percentage of women in law enforcement has plateaued at about 12.6 % despite law enforcement agencies’ desires to increase their percentage of female officers.
First, the study sought to ascertain barriers from the perspective of women who attended a department recruiting event targeted to increase female applicants. Second, the study compared the factors involved in disqualification and withdrawal for female and male applicants. Finally, the study sought to understand gender differences in the academy experience. Analysis of these diverse sources of information were integrated into a comprehensive conclusion aimed at providing insight to researchers and practitioners seeking to understand how to effectively recruit and retain female police officers.
Several key findings related to tokenism emerged. First, the results indicated that visibility, or being noticed, was an important issue in the process. Whereas scrutiny (being noticed for poor performance) had negative effects on completing the applicant screening process and graduating the academy, praise (being noticed for performing well), was positively related to the decision to apply. Second, polarization, exaggeration of differences between men and women, was problematic. When polarization was sexually-explicit, it was negatively related to the decision to apply. Emphasis of women as being physically weaker than men reinforced feelings of discouragement and judgment that were important reasons why women withdrew rather than attempting to pass physical fitness tests. Third, while evidence of assimilation, role entrapment and group isolation, was found in the academy, women were not likely to recognize it as a problem. Further, expectations of assimilation were not important to the decision to apply.
Other key findings related to the gender model of work. The physical differences between men and women were important differences in their perceptions about their ability to do the job as well as their ability to complete the physical testing and the academy. Men and women were believed to differ in their response to issues including stress within the academy with women being more emotional. These differences were believed to explain the academy being more difficult for women.
Women were concerned about the impact of a career in policing on their families (especially their children). Often this was expressed through fears about the safety issues involved affecting others. Familial and spousal support were important issues. Women often received support, and lack of support was related to withdrawing from the process or failing to succeed in the academy. Lack of support from significant others was an important issue and was related to failed relationships for successful recruits.
Administratively, the physical fitness and written examinations were important barriers for women. Although women failed to pass these stages more often than men, failure to schedule the tests and failure to show for tests that were schedule were more common among women than men. This was related to issues of judgment and discouragement. Discouragement was reinforced by the lack of support from family and significant others. Support from recruiters and/or trainers was found to be beneficial for women engaged in the process.
The department’s haircut policy for women, which required their hair to be cut shorter than one inch prior to entering the training academy, was a substantial issue. It was related to the decision to not apply, the decision to withdraw, and negative feelings among women who decided to cut their hair to enter the academy. The haircut policy was cited by recruiters and current female officers as a reason that more women did not apply to the department.