Gender equality in policing?

tall and short

It’s simple physiology. Image courtesy of Cairns police blog

A recent item on the news caught my attention. It was about Queensland Police Service’s latest initiative to have equal numbers of males and female recruits accepted into the Academy. This is part of a push that was supposedly already in the pipeline when I was accepted into the police over fifteen years ago. Back then, they were working towards having equal numbers of men and women in the police to reflect the make-up of society. And now they are at that point – Commissioner Stewart has given a direction that there will be a 50/50 ratio of male and female recruits.

Gender equality is always a touchy subject and even as I write this, I wonder if I can explain myself in a way that doesn’t make me sound like I’m selling out. My opinion is based on fifteen plus years experience, most of it as a first response officer. I have worked with a whole lot of officers – senior and junior, male and female. And I think this 50/50 policy is flawed.

The first problem is a simple physiological one. In general, women are not as strong as men. This isn’t sexism, this is biology. We’re built differently (and thank goodness for that). Of course there are exceptions, but I clearly remember an instructor at the Academy telling us that the average woman has strength equal to a thirteen-year-old boy. So the minute you are up against a fourteen-year-old boy or above, you are already on the back foot.

But police all have the same weapons, don’t they? Yes, and the same training too. But the minute you can’t talk your way out of or somehow defuse a situation before reaching onto your utility belt, the more likely someone – or everyone – is going to get hurt. It’s not necessarily a simple matter to slap on a set of handcuffs or give a quick squirt of OC spray. You have to be able to use the weapons effectively on someone who may be violent, unco-operative or drug-affected. Even if you are using an accoutrement, it is a physical and mostly violent action. It often ends in tears.

Then you have to add to this the attitude of the people you are dealing with. I’ve turned up to jobs with a female colleague only to be laughed at and told to go get the “real” police. Go to a domestic violence incident where a man has been beating a woman, turn up with two female officers in a crew and you’re already up against it. He’s just flogged his missus, now a couple of chicks want to push him around? How’s that going to go? There are also cultures whose menfolk simply refuse to deal with women. It shouldn’t happen – it shouldn’t matter who’s inside the uniform. But not every idiot on the street has got the memo that we’re equal now.

It is all well and good to say you want gender balance. But the fact of the matter is that a higher proportion of offenders are male. A quick look through recent assault numbers show about five times as many were committed by men. Having police numbers which reflect the make-up of society is pointless. It would be more useful for them to reflect the make-up of the clientele police deal with.

The 50/50 ratio suggests that there would always be a male and a female officer making up each crew. This would be great. Men and women have different strengths and different ways of dealing with the mix of people policing throws up at you. But this is not how rostering works. There are always officers on leave and shift equity has to be taken into account. More women in the police will mean more ‘bitch crews’ – yes, this is how they are referred to. It’s more dangerous working with another female officer, especially on night shift when there may be no other officers to help out. It’s not fair but that’s because the society we police is not fair.

In an ideal world, male and female police officers would be treated as equals by both their colleagues and all segments of the community. But policing is not carried out in the ideal world. The real world is a far messier place, where drugs, alcohol, testosterone and anger are often driving forces. Muscle and physical presence have their part to play. And women are at a disadvantage.

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12 thoughts on “Gender equality in policing?

  1. A woman is not as strong as a 13 year old boy? Citation needed on that one. Biologically, women are far stronger. We live longer, fight off infection more easily and are less susceptible to environmental contaminants. Not to mention we have higher pain thresholds. I get what you’re saying but I think that if a bloke who has assaulted his wife is going to be bothered by two female officers, that is not something we should pander to. He has a problem with respecting women already; perhaps seeing them in a position of power is something he needs to see, more and more often. I love the idea of male and female teams where possible. Women being more visible in policing likely will be hard at first but look at what it can pave the way towards: equality. Those segments of society that don’t respect or deal with female authority figures will eventually have no choice but to change. It will need some strong women and supportive environments but it can be done. Bitch crews and similar terms need to get in the bin where they belong- that’s disrespect (however ingrained and tolerated within current ranks) right from the outset. Police have their own culture and it’s been a boys club for a long time but there is already shifts here in nsw- why not keep up the momentum?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Women certainly have a place in policing and the male/female crew works well in general. But a shift in attitude to women in policing is not enough. As a police officer, you come up against people who don’t have any respect for anyone (including themselves) often because of drugs or mental health issues. Some of these instances end in violence. If you are attempting to restrain a burly man, having a higher immune system won’t help you. Though a higher threshold to pain might. I would love to say women can do everything. But two women in a police car is more dangerous. Not every shift. Not even very often. But enough to make myself and many other female officers uncomfortable with it. Because we’re the ones who are going to have to deal with it.

      I have no data about the strength of a 13yo boy. I didn’t believe it myself when they told me. The point I was trying to make is that this is the view taken by the people training police. Right from the outset, they warn you about strength limitations.

      Thanks for your comments. I’m just trying to present a different viewpoint on this.

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  2. Whilst I’m not a fan of ratios I don’t think that the argument for Male:Female to reflect the criminals is a good argument. That is the “what we’ve always done” or the “fight fire with fire” approach that old answers to new problems; or are they the same problems? I’d also argue that there is a large part of crime that is not violent.

    Ratios trouble me because the intake ratio is not going to reflect retention. Nor is that ratio going to necessarily change the culture, which will in turn affect retention. But I think HandbagMafia makes a good point that until you have the broader public seeing more women in these sorts of roles you can’t change attitudes. Side point to this point, I’ve heard from one female police friend that she was the preferred responder to DV calls as having a woman there for the victim (which is almost always a woman or the kids). This seems to make sense.

    I also don’t think the argument about the “average woman” being as strong as a 13 yr old boy holds any weight. Are the police recruiting average people now? Do they expect those people to remain average, i.e. an unfit, overweight slob? I’m a male of above average strength, I’d still hate to go one-on-one with someone bent on violence.

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    • They should be choosing the best people for an often difficult job, rather than trying to raise numbers of females just for the sake of it. It’s counter-productive to choose women who might usually be passed over, just to fill the quota. As you said, if they are not the right person for the job, they won’t last anyway.

      I agree that the male/female crew works best – but having a 50/50 ratio goes past this point.

      I would describe myself as average. I was fit when I started at the academy, but 15+ years and 2 children later, it was never going to be the same. Perhaps this is part of the problem.

      Thanks for your comments.

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  3. I think that gender equity is such a difficult area. I think most men want it just as much as women but I think it takes more than a token let’s get 50/50 ratios. I know men who work for large major Australian corporates and they wanted to work part time to care for his son and there are corporate policies in place that say that this can happen but when they apply for it their manager says no, so they go to HR and then HR says refer back to your manager and in circles it goes.

    So the corporate policies exist but the practicalities of the implementations of things often just don’t happen. Whereas if the same situation was reversed and a woman was requesting the part time work for family reasons it wouldn’t be nearly as hard to get.

    I think that we need a whole society shift on things.

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    • I agree that this 50/50 policy stinks of tokenism. They want to be seen to be doing the politically correct thing and I fear it will be the police themselves paying the price as they usher through women just for the sake of it.

      A bureaucracy can be a frustrating and disheartening place to work. Thanks for your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. While I understand what you’re trying to say, I feel that most of your points and the underlying attitudes behind them are the reason we SHOULD have ratios and quotas, not shouldn’t. All female crews are called bitch crews? Instead of having fewer, have more so that the terminology (rightly) becomes an embarrassment. A man hits a partner and two female cops turn up to deal with it? HOORAY! He sees women in positions of authority and has to question his own assumptions about masculinity and power.
    I don’t want to be a police officer, and hats off to those who do. I think women who want to be police officers should be encouraged and applauded. #teamIBOT

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    • I agree with the theory behind what you are saying. The reality, though, when you are the one facing off against a large angry drug-affected man is quite different. That’s the reason I wrote this piece – to present the view from inside a woman’s police boots. When it all goes pear-shaped, and occasionally it does, that’s when you realise how much at a disadvantage you are.

      Thanks for your comments.

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      • I disagree that you’re representing this from a woman’s view. The use of the term ‘bitch crews’ combined with the current investigation into in-house sexual harassment and abuse belies your attempt to dress up discrimination as concern for the delicate womenfolk.

        (Also, if a higher proportion of the law-breaking population are male, why does the police force have to be male to combat it? Couldn’t that suggest that a mostly-male police force would be more susceptible to corruption? I’m not saying that, I’m just pointing out another of your arguments that can be flipped to argue the opposite.)

        Thanks for replying to my comments. While I disagree with the points presented in this post, I’m glad you’re not deleting the comments that disagree and are letting the conversation happen.

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      • I am happy to have this conversation. That’s what I’m trying to do – explain what it is like from where I am standing as female police officer. I have had positive feedback to this blog post from other serving police women through my FB author page. I maintain that my view, whether you agree or not (we could argue the points all day) is valid.

        Thanks again for your comments!

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  5. I think you make a lot of really valid points here, and I can absolutely see where you’re coming from. It’s wonderful that more women are being encouraged to join the police force and that the majority of society is moving towards gender equality. But like you said, police do not deal in a perfect world and that needs to be taken into account.
    I also think that it’s too simplistic to hope that women in power would encourage men to question their own beliefs regarding gender equality. That would work for people who think logically and are concerned with bettering themselves, but I suspect that a lot of perpetrators do not fit that particular mould.
    Thanks for your thoughts on this.

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    • You’re absolutely spot on when you say that women in power aren’t going to change the antiquated attitudes of a segment of society. I still get called ‘love’ consistently whilst in my uniform. They might as well pat me on the head and say ‘are you playing dress-ups?’ at the same time. And they’re not even the unreasonable people I deal with. Thanks for your comments, Jess.

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