Chapter 7

The History OF WOMEN IN POLICING, a change in communication


This chapter will explore the challenges faced by women as their policing role changed over many years. There are unique situations and circumstances faced by women that are both internally caused (from within their departments) and externally presented (public acceptance of female officers). How much of this information can we attribute to the unique skill sets offered by females in policing? Do they communicate differently? Is it effective, or are there simply no differences in policing style or standards? There are some key questions to ask yourself before reading on. Without researching these questions further, write a few lines on each to record your opinion and revisit the questions after the chapter to see if your views are swayed.

Do women bring a different style to policing than their male counterparts?


Is there a communication difference?

What would you expect a female officer to do differently than a male?

Are physical or verbal confrontations dealt with differently?

How have females historically been utilised in policing and in modern policing?

Where are we in truly finding equality?

What era do you think equality was found in relation to policing?

The chapter will provide a brief history of policing in the United Kingdom (UK), long considered the birthplace of modern-day policing methods. A comparison to Canada will be explored. This is an interesting parallel to begin with, as so many policing standards in Canada were adopted from the UK. The author of the chapter, a Woman Police Constable (WPC) in the West Midlands Police in the UK in the 1990s, provides personal dialogue on the challenges faced. A brief look back in time to a decade not long ago reveals some head-scratching decisions. Imagine policing on the street and being expected to do the same job as your male counterpart while wearing a skirt, carrying a black police handbag that holds your handbag-sized wooden truncheon! You would feel at odds with your male partner, who was wearing warmer and more practical trousers with a specially-sewn pocket down the outside of the leg to secure the easily accessible, full-length wooden truncheon.

The UK Equal Opportunities Commission (1990) concluded from its review of police working practices in England that a considerable amount of stereotypical deployment existed. While policemen were more frequently allocated to driving, public order and outside duties, policewomen were more frequently allocated to communications, work with children and young persons and inside duties.

Within the chapter, a personal account will show the much-needed evolution of accepting women in an equal role and the eventual integration of the “Women’s Department” to the mainstream police service. How much communication has, both internally and externally, assisted women in policing?

The UK Equal Opportunities Commission (1990) (1990, p. 21)

History of Women in Policing

To understand communication strategies and how they have helped women in policing, it is pertinent to provide a brief history of where this all began. Police departments did not always have women in uniform.

The VPD Story

The story of females employed by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is very well detailed by Matteo Miceli in a blog on the VPD Museum Archives Website. Miceli describes how, in the early 1900s, a strong women’s movement highlighting and defending women’s rights existed. At the time there was a high rate of domestic violence and a push by women’s rights activists to have female police officers who would be more sympathetic to women and child victims. This led to the employment of Vancouver Police Constables Lurancy Harris and Minnie Miller, who were Canada’s first female officers and fulfilled “matron” positions, looking after juvenile and female prisoners in the jail. (Miceli)


Of course, Harris and Miller were paid substandard wages in comparison to males, and did not receive training or carry a weapon. In fact, they provided their own clothing and utilized hand bags to conceal any tools of the trade. As pioneers, they saw the female contingent grow to 11 officers placed under the command of a female Inspector Nancy Hewitt in 1943. Along came uniforms, and eventually, in 1956, equal pay to men was granted. (Miceli)


Three officers take aim during target practice. In 1967, women were required to train with firearms but were not allowed to carry them on duty.


The distinct and separate division meant that male officers were not in direct competition with the women, who were still, essentially, only employed in the jail. There seemed to be a backward step following some resignations and the death of Inspector Hewitt. The female roles were given to male officers and the women were transferred to dispatch duties. Miceli observes that the VPD were going in the opposite direction to a society that was advocating female equality. Finally, in 1973, women were allowed firearms and utilized alongside male officers on the street.  Two years later, the term “police women” was replaced by the non-gender term “police constable”. Following this, females took on roles in dog handling, motorcycle rider, and as Emergency Response Team members. Today’s department has significantly changed since the 1970s. The number of female officers has increased year after year. As of 2018, women made up 26% of sworn officers in the VPD and have filled almost every section.

This part of local history in British Columbia (BC) Canada, has not gone unnoticed in recent years. A particular interest in Vancouver’s first female police officers was reflected in a stage show produced in Vancouver running in 2017. This show featured portrayals of Lurancy D. Harris and Minnie Miller as constables in the production, “And Bella Sang with Us”.

Females on Patrol

The evolution for women in policing occurred in not only North America and Europe, but also Australasia at the same time. Articles were written in the 1980s and 90s regarding the perceived lack of physical strength of female police officers, and their therefore perceived unsuitability to work on patrol. The article “The Weaker Sex? Women and Police Work” (International Journal of Police Science and Management, vol. 1, number 3, Margot French and Linda Waugh, 1998.) details this discussion from an Australian viewpoint, but is reflected in the experiences of female police officers in many countries at that time. It may be surprising to learn that as recently as 1998, female police officers were reporting feelings of isolation, unfair working conditions and harassment. This is reflected in the experiences of women in North America and the UK at the same time. Much of this discrimination stems from concerns that females would emasculate policing, and that the job would be seen as more akin to a social worker than a traditionally more military career. This translated into operational policing for women by deploying them into stereotyped roles that women were perceived to be good at. Policemen were allotted driving and public order duties, while policewomen were dispatched to assignments involving children, women, youth, and communication jobs (such as taking witness statements). There were few women in traffic departments and specialist units. Women were over-represented in community relations and training (French, Waugh, 1998, p.261). This stereotyping was perpetuated by the fact that female officers also lacked the experience gained by male officers.

The author had a similar experience, which can be demonstrated by this typical encounter. One of her male colleagues told her he really enjoyed working with her as a person, but hoped not to be partnered up together for patrol duties, because it meant an allocation of ‘girl jobs’ for the duration of the shift. By this comment, he had admitted his acceptance that a male and female occupied patrol unit would be dispatched primarily to female shoplifters, missing person enquiries, sudden deaths and statement taking. Females were not dispatched to burglaries in progress, thefts, or assaults with the offender still present. The author recalls that women were not sent to fights unless absolutely necessary, the rumour being that male officers felt an obligation to ‘protect’ females, making the men’s job more difficult. This could potentially cause the male officer to be injured because he felt that he had to act as guardian to the female officer. Even in the mid-1990s, female officers were not viewed by male peers (and perhaps the wider population) as physically strong or capable in a fight, and were therefore considered less useful and well-rounded than a male police officer. This made the author feel less respected as a team member and certainly less valuable as a police officer. It was not just the male police officers that needed to be convinced. The author remembers attending a burglary and being asked by the male householder, ‘Where is the man?’, meaning that a female officer was not adequate for him and did not meet his expectations.

Since the graduated inclusion of females entering into a policing career, women were not just concerned with whether they could perform their duties as a police officer, but also with the aspect of fitting into an established male police culture. Over time, complaints from male officers regarding accepting females as patrol officers were similar across departments. There was a strong perception of an encompassing lack of suitability of women to all aspects of police work and their ability with the required interpersonal skills in times of trouble.

Especially important was the effort women needed to make in order to prove themselves. “In order to gain acceptance, many women police become one of the boys.” (French, Waugh, 1998, p.261)

“In doing so, however, they must also maintain satisfactory working relationships with the dominant group by downplaying their achievements. This balance is often difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain for a long period of time (Martin, 1980).”  (French, Waugh, 1998, p.261)

The police had been a male-dominated culture for almost the entirety of its existence. The reasons for this include the connection with the military. Men often found a natural transition when leaving the armed forces to enter the police, and the police were happy to have reliable men experienced in conflict situations in the force. It therefore became a male environment and culture akin to the military. Women wanting to do this kind of work were either laughed at or dissuaded by way of it not ‘being appropriate’ work for a female. The author heard all of this herself. She experienced some very strange comments, as did her husband, who is also a police officer. Her husband was a police officer when she joined and comments directed at him by his male colleagues included, “You know she’ll be in a car with a man for hours?” When the author went to the optician for her obligatory test for colour-blindness the male optician said, “Why does a nice girl like you want to do a job like that?” So, the cultural seeds are sown, not a suitable job for a female. The effect on the would-be police woman (as we were known as WPC then) was to install trepidation, questions for myself such as “Will I be accepted?” “Will I be alone?”

From the book, “Women in charge”

“The police culture is one that is hostile to women and continues to have a strong influence in defining and structuring police work.” (p.22)

The author goes on to state that there is a ‘cult of masculinity’ in police work, because of the attributes seen as being desirable for a policing career, such as: aggressive, strong, heroic, rescuer (knight in shining armour), brave – all traditionally regarded as male qualities. To that end, women entering into the policing profession were encouraged to take on ‘caring’ roles befitting traditional female qualities. In fact, in the UK up to the 1970s, women in the police were segregated into the Women’s Police Department. After the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, women were integrated into the mainstream (male) police departments. Until 1999, women in the UK police service also had the prefix of W (woman) in front of the designation police constable. The book “Women in Charge” also emphasises that police work as “crime-fighting” appears to be a more masculine pursuit than does “PEACE-keeper” which implies that women can do the job, too.

In order to ‘fit in’ and gain acceptance, women not only had to work harder, but find a way to prove themselves and therefore gain access to the male team. Any mistake a female made reinforced the idea that women were not suitable for police work.

The aspect of fitting in with a team that was all men was another tricky part of policing. The author decided to work harder, determining that she had to be seen and heard by the whole team to be working flat out constantly, meaning that when she was not directed to a call, she was conducting stop checks on people or vehicles as UK legislation allows. She would also make stops without asking for backup in an attempt to appear independent, courageous and therefore suitable to the job, not something that is suggested for any officer. Her willingness to take every call and be first on the radio also involved accepting a certain amount of inappropriate humour and comments. The lack of acceptance leads to a lack of social support in a profession that can be very stressful. Since females were not considered part of the ‘brotherhood’, they did not receive the same social network support (Bannerman, 1985,p.3). Also according to Hochschild (1973) in ‘female officers: the relationship between social support, interactional style, and occupational stress and strain’ (Bannerman,1985, p.77) women have two coping mechanisms when faced with a male work culture environment. These are ‘de-feminized’ and ‘de-professionalized’. The de-feminized woman plays down her femininity and does not identify with other women. The de-professionalized woman takes a junior role and accepts being treated as a lady, so as not to threaten masculinity. (Bannerman, 1985, p.77). ‘Unfortunately, the effect of such over-utilisation of females in some activities can perpetuate the perceived stereotype of activities appropriate for females and limits the experiences that women can gain’ (French, Waugh, 1998, p.261). This had an effect on their apparent competence and their own confidence in their ability and worth to the profession.

Female Officers-Communication Skills

The question early on in policing appears to have been regarding physical strength, perhaps even confrontations with members of the public and how suitable and effective female police officers were in these incidents. In this case I refer back to these earlier articles, as follows:

The realistic aspect to policing is the majority of police time is not spent in physical fighting. Women have been proved to be highly successful in their non-confrontational communication style. (French, Waugh, 1998, p.264).

‘Furthermore, police research has never shown physical strength to be related to police functioning or officer safety (Sherman, 1993). It may be that the ability to defuse a potentially violent situation may be preferable to the use of strength in conflict situations.’  (French, Waugh, 1998, p.264).

women cops on horses
“Alright looking female cop” by Mihnea Stanciu is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Females are less likely to use physical confrontation or demands, and prefer to use verbal communication skills to diffuse a volatile situation. Although there is a shortage of research as to the differences in communication styles between female and male police officers, a small study from Australia does show a consistent difference in strategies between genders. The research showed that the behaviour tactics used by females were more consistent with support, with males employing controlling language such as “come here”. Males also tend to be more “threatening in their approach” and were also in physical contact longer than females. (Braithwaite, 1997, p.280). Citizen behaviour is also different towards male police officers, with verbal and physical abuse being much more frequently used towards males than females (p.281). The conclusion from this study showed that male officers “preferred tactics which emphasised power over the citizen, such as control, threat and physical actions”. It states that:

Females were generally more supportive of citizens, preferring tactics which emphasised mutual power in the interaction. In the article ‘Differences in the conflict resolution tactics of male and female police patrol officers’ (Wiley et al, quoted in Braithwaite, 1998, p.285), “The results of this study provide further evidence for previous work, demonstrating that police-citizen encounters are interactive processes, whereby the behaviour of the officer significantly influences the behaviour of the citizen. Not only do officers respond to the behaviour of the citizen and act accordingly, but the tactical choices of officers were also shown to affect the level of citizen resistance experienced.” Further in the article Braithwaite adds;

“Consequently, the tactical choices of male officers more often placed them at risk of physical confrontation than female officers. Females were generally more supportive of citizens, preferring tactics which emphasised mutual power in the interaction. Females used coercive tactics less frequently and in different contexts than males and, as a result, experienced less verbal abuse during their discussions with members of the public, and avoided physical resistance.”(Braithwaite, 1998, p.285).

This illustrates that even where there are perceived differences in the communication style of female officers, there is no evident disadvantage to the situation when a female is involved in the discourse or management of the situation.

In the book “Women in Charge”, the author references a stumbling block I have personally encountered, which is a lack of research into gender in policing. “The significance of gender for policing is evident with only a handful of researchers taking gender as their main focus” (Silvestri, 2003). For example, the chapter, ‘The Police organisation: a gendered site’ begins with the statement that “Research on organisations has historically paid little attention to the significance of gender, with the field almost exclusively dominated by malestream approaches and ways of viewing and understanding organisational reality”.  (Silvestri,2003, P. 21)

A fascinating insight into what are considered masculine roles in policing and the resistance toward more “female” identified roles such as community policing is reported by Silvestri. The reaction of women to being pushed into more gender stereotypical roles is also featured. Some women attempt to emphasise masculine traits in order to prove themselves or fit in with the boys. (Silvestri,2003, P. 36)

Women have come a long way in policing since then; the current numbers of females represented in law enforcement have seen consistent increases.

Women, however, have not traditionally been their own supporters. Silvestri points out that part of the reason is that they felt a sense of particular oversight and examination into how they fulfilled their roles (Silvestri,2003, P. 147). They were often not openly supportive of other females, even when they achieved management positions. The feeling that any failure on the part of a female would be attributed to their gender seemed to be an underlying concern and an added pressure to their jobs and careers. The other issue made clear by Silvestri is the concern with being labelled a feminist because of the nature of the career and the negative connotations associated with that label. This is something I, too, was conscious of. The attempt to show you are not a feminist and therefore, not uptight, by trying to be one of the boys, makes female traits less obvious in an attempt to over-compensate for your gender.

The report, ‘Women in policing: A study of the Vancouver Police Department’, issued in September 1980, indicates that Vancouver was the first police service in Canada to hire female police officers. It started, much like the UK police, with a women’s department. Similar to the UK new legislation passed in the 1970s, Canada passed The Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977. This saw women assigned patrol duties for the first time. A study shows that female police officers, when evaluated by their supervisors, were found to be very similar in performance. When male police officers were asked about the hiring of females, they were more often against it. The notable exception was those male officers who had already worked closely with female officers (Linden, 1984, p.21-27). This attitude and the counter, the positive evaluations of females could be seen throughout North American departments, including RCMP and municipalities. The RCMP found through a survey that the main complaints they had about hiring female police officers were:

  1. It made their job look like social work;
  2. Women are not committed because they want babies;
  3. Women cannot deal with violence and policemen were worried about having to protect them.

These are all concerns that were voiced to me personally during my time in service. Men did feel an almost chivalrous duty to protect women, something most women did not expect or feel was owed to them. I suppose this is the nature of culture and the way these men had been brought up and considered themselves gentlemen. Interestingly the same study also found that the attitude toward women was more favourable amongst men who already worked closely with women on patrol. In the book ‘Equality Denied, The Status of Women In Policing’ (Lonsway, Kim, et al,2001), Lonsway states that women are deterred from joining the police because of a perception of a masculine and aggressive image (Lonsway, Kim, et al,2001, p.3). Lonsway states that this is a large part of the problem in retaining and promoting women in the police. In my experience in the late 1990s, many females were leaving the police. The problem was recognized but was not addressed in any meaningful way, leaving most female police officers to feel that it really didn’t matter to management.

Women in policing has evolved and advanced in the last twenty years. Women are an integrated and valued part of the policing workforce. They belong and have an important part in the future of our police services. I will finish this chapter with a personal insight from an officer beginning her career in the 1980s.

1986 – Reporting For Duty

by Sharon Spriggs

One of the first places all officers report for duty is, of course, the store room to pick up your uniform. Whatever else you are given it is the uniform that symbolises who and what you are. It is the uniform that gives you the respect and is imbued with the powers handed down to all police officers so it was with a fair amount of excitement and awe that I stood in line at Bournville Police Stores with my fellow new recruits that chilly October morning in 1986. In front of me was a typical police officer (to be), 22 years of age, 6 ft, male, lean, broad shouldered. Next to him was me, 5’4”, female, medium build, age 26, size 4 feet. But it was OK, we were both there to be equipped to do the same job. We were equals. I know this because I had been told so many times during the interviews and training. West Midlands Police, I was assured, were a modern police force going forward.

As we shuffled along the counter we were each handed the accoutrements to do our job. Handcuffs, handcuff pouch, torch, epaulettes, collar numbers, 8830 in my case and then we got to the actual uniform. I remember my heart beating faster in excitement and anticipation as the young man in front was asked his name and then handed 2 pairs of trousers. He shuffled along. I was asked my name and handed 2 skirts. In front of me my fellow colleague to be was handed 2 blue jumpers and his pristine jacket. He held it up with pride, a big grin on his face. I held my arms out eagerly for mine, smaller of course and, I quickly noticed no pockets. I glanced back at the other jacket. Two side pockets, at least one breast pocket from what I could see, lots of room to put his pens, notebook, keys, handkerchief. I quickly picked up my skirt, no pockets there either. I turned in time to see the man next to me handed a thick leather belt to go round his long, warm, user friendly trousers, which would undoubtedly be used to hang his handcuffs, torch, first aid kit etc.

Suddenly, the ugliest thing I had ever seen was thrust in my direction. A stiff, black, heavy leather handbag. I assumed this was the substitute for the missing pockets. The line had started to move along and I caught up just as the man in front was holding out both his hands. I watched as he stood there expectantly and patiently, palms facing upwards until a 16” piece of beautifully carved shiny wood was placed ceremoniously in his hands. His truncheon. He turned it this way and that, slipping his hand through the soft leather handle, swinging it gently, testing it out for balance. This was a British police officer’s only form of protection and I understood it deserved a certain amount of reverence and respect. I watched as he carefully placed it on top of his clothes. The man behind the counter stepped away momentarily and returned with an encouraging smile on his face. ‘There you go love.’ I quickly looked up to see if he was taking the piss but no, he’d already moved on to the next in line and was holding another ‘adult sized’ truncheon in his hand. I stared at the 10” piece of wood in my own hand, turning it over to check if there was somewhere to put batteries as this was clearly a joke, and the only chance I would ever have of protecting myself would be if, when taking it out of my handbag, the person in front of me died of laughter!

I quickly shuffled along the counter and watched as my fellow colleague, my peer, my equal in all manner was handed his police helmet. It seemed huge. Another big grin as the recipient admired the shiny silver badge on the front, tested the strap for strength and stability then rapped it hard with his knuckles. It was solid. He tried it on for size and I watched as his face clouded over. I knew he was imagining himself standing on the front line, bottles and bricks flying overhead, confident in the knowledge his head would be safely protected. He unconsciously pulled his shoulders back and pushed his chest out, standing tall. A movement caught my eye and I looked down. There on top of my folded skirts, jumpers and jacket was a round piece of white plastic. For several moments I glanced back and forth at the two pieces of headgear. I placed my forefinger on the top in the centre and pressed gently down and watched as a dent quickly formed in the middle. I picked it up by its shiny black plastic peak and noticed underneath a paper envelope. Inside a small metal badge to clip on the front of the hat. And that’s what it was, a hat. Not a helmet. Not a piece of protective headgear. It was a hat. For a moment my face also clouded over as I imagined myself chasing after my first burglar. Restricted by my skirt as I tried to clamber over a fence, encumbered by the heavy bulky bag slung over my shoulder, conveniently placed should anyone want to use it to strangle me and my white shiny hat languishing in a puddle having been blown off by that strong gust of wind. And then, having caught the aforementioned burglar having to ask him if he’d just hold still a moment while I rummaged through my bag for my handcuffs.

As the counter came to an end I glanced across and saw the young man next to me staring. He was also looking back and forth between the two pieces of headwear. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. He just shrugged his shoulders and moved along. Yes we were the same, but different. Some would always be more equal than others. Nothing needed to be spoken, nothing overt in nature but in all its subtlety it was there, plain to see.


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Communications in Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice System: Key Principles Copyright © 2021 by Steve McCartney and Cindy Patterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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