A new study suggests that, while outwardly many police departments are trying to increase their diversity by aiming ambitious recruiting campaigns at minorities, gender discrimination is "alive and well" within the ranks.
The study, that looks at the effect of male-dominated culture on the identity of female police officers, is the work of Lesley Bikos, a former officer with the London Police Service, who is currently a PhD candidate in sociology at Western University.
Bikos interviewed 15 women from five police services across Southwestern Ontario.
Her findings revealed many of the women found themselves at odds with a police culture that has enshrined macho stereotypes as a professional virtue, putting the women at a disadvantage compared to their male colleagues.
Female officers felt devalued
"They felt that what they brought to the job was devalued in many cases both professionally and personally," Bikos said.
"Professionally they were not given the same opportunities as their male counterparts, despite their qualifications or the fact that they were even better at the job than the men who were promoted above them," she said.
"They also felt that they were isolated socially amongst the dominant group of male officers that they worked with," Bikos said, noting some of the female officers she spoke to described positive experiences.
However, Bikos said those policewomen said they'd seen discrimination and harassment of other women in the force.
"They mostly felt that they fit in with the boys and that's why they experienced better personal and professional opportunities," she said.
Women who pushed back
Bikos noted there were several women in her study who initially felt as if they fit in to the male-dominated police culture, but when pushed back later in their careers, they paid the price.
"The police culture came down hard on them," she said, noting that while many of the women were socially isolated, some of them reported being professionally sabotaged, saying key documents or evidence in their criminal investigations suddenly went missing.
What might be most startling of all though is that many of the women described woman-on-woman bullying.
"A lot of the women did talk about the fact that women in the department don't seem to be in it together," she said. "Particularly the women who had pushed back felt like they were abandoned by the female officers, such things as not testifying on their behalf or talking about the things they had seen.
Women pitted against each other
"They did talk about women supervisors being harder on them," Bikos said. "That was really interesting because the male culture typically divides women and creates a competition among them and that's what the women really talked about, the fact that there's one token spot for one woman and 10 spots for men.
"Women are pitted against each other to compete to get that one spot that they're looking for and to try to fit in with this group," she said.
Bikos acknowledges her findings are in direct contrast to the outward appearance of police departments, that have embarked on recruiting campaigns to increase diversity in the ranks.
"That's what my participants were telling me. The majority were saying that yes, outwardly, police forces they work for are doing the right things, because for publicity they have to look like they're progressive, but that inwardly the informal mechanisms that are used against them are still oppressing them and holding them down as a group."
Real consequences for public
Bikos said the effect of gender discrimination within the force has real consequences for the public.
"It affects [the public] in a big way," she said. "If you have unhealthy officers, that trickles down to public service and could potentially create use of force issues. It could potentially involve issues of racism, homophobism, sexism," she said.
"Policing is much more socially geared these days and we need to shift that culture from that reactive physical based policing to a more community collaborative policing and I think that would be much more successful in today's society for the officers and for the public."
Bikos said she plans to broaden her research with a new study. She wants to look at the experience of male and female officers both good and bad to better their lives as officers.
"I think if we have happy, healthy officers then we have better public service," she said.
Officers interested in participating have been invited to contact Bikos by email: email@example.com. Bikos said their identities will be protected.