Women still struggling to get ahead on Ottawa police force, damning audit finds

Women on Ottawa's police force often endure sexist behaviour as they struggle under a workplace culture that's stacked against their advancement, according to a damning gender equality audit released Monday.

Female officers denied training, promotion based on gender, maternity leaves

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau admits the force has significant work to do when it comes to attracting and promoting women. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Women on Ottawa's police force often endure sexist behaviour as they struggle under a workplace culture that's stacked against their advancement, according to a damning gender equality audit released Monday.

"The audit clearly shows we have significant work to do," said police Chief Charles Bordeleau. "Women deserve the same respect and opportunities."

We failed miserably.- Sandy Smallwood, Ottawa Police Services Board

In a report to the Ottawa Police Services Board, Bordeleau admitted that "the audit found evidence that women are under-represented in our promotions, do not share in decision-making (including decisions on promotions), are adversely impacted by family status or maternity accommodations or needs, and that many have experienced inappropriate behaviour or comments aimed at their gender."

The audit was ordered last December by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as part of a settlement between the Ottawa Police Service and an officer who had alleged she was denied training and promotions because of "her family status, sex and maternity leaves."

The audit was conducted by an independent researcher, Dr. Carina Fiedeldey-Van Dijk.

It found that 23 per cent of sworn officers with the Ottawa Police Service are women, a rate that's slightly higher than the national average of around 20 per cent, but which has only grown marginally in a decade.

That finding appeared to startle some board members.

"To clarify, since 2005, the number of sworn female members only increased by one per cent?" asked member Sandy Smallwood. "We failed miserably."

Well below gender equality standard

The police industry standard for providing an environment for gender equality, known as the Equality Framework, calls for a minimum score of 61 per cent, based on a number of criteria. The police force in Ottawa only scored 28.15 per cent.

"We're obviously a little bit late," acknowledged Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association.

"The report doesn't have anything in it that's a surprise to us. The audit's exposed there are, when it comes to a gender perspective, issues that need to be dealt with."

Skof said it will be years before any changes to polices will result in greater parity between the sexes in the force. But he argued that any gender bias may have been "without any intent."

"It goes back to the culture," he said. "For years and years, always having guys in certain units."

Senior roles rare for women

The audit found women in senior roles, support by management for women's advancement and investment in gender integration policies, are "rare or by implications only, and are in need of improvement."

Women and men do not share in decision-making during meetings, training doesn't take gender equality into consideration and there is little opportunity for officers to exchange ideas, experience or advice when it comes to resolving gender issues, the audit found.

Bordeleau publicly thanked the constable who forced the issue of sexism in force into the public for her "courage."

That officer was Barbara Sjaarda, who told the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that in 2005 Ottawa police supervisors refused her request to enter a training program because she was going to be on maternity leave. When she returned from her leave, she said she was not allowed to participate in a promotion process because she had taken time off after having a child.

This happened twice more: when Sjaarda returned from each of her subsequent two maternity leaves, she was denied her request to enter a training program that could have led to a future promotion. 

Human rights commission intervened

The Ontario Human Rights Commission intervened in the tribunal case to address systemic barriers to promotion and advancement that women can face. 

"As a result of the settlement, the Ottawa police will conduct a systemic review of its workforce demographics, policies and procedures," the commission wrote in a release from December 2015. "The aim is to ensure that female police officers, particularly those who take maternity leaves and have family caregiving responsibilities, have equal opportunity to be represented at all levels and ranks."

Monday's report encompassed the first two phases of the audit, which included analyzing data collected in 2012 and reviewing the policies and procedures of the force to determine whether they discriminated against women.