The US Department of Justice filed a federal lawsuit against the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Police last week alleging that the state police has engaged in a pattern and practice of employment discrimination against women.

In its suit, the DOJ alleges that the Pennsylvania state police excluded qualified women from consideration as entry-level troopers by requiring candidates to pass a physical fitness test that did not test for physical skills necessary to perform the job.

According to the DOJ complaint, the test “disproportionately screened out female applicants, resulting in a disparate impact against those applicants” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Between 2003 and 2012, the female pass rate for the physical exam was less than 80 percent of the male pass rate. That gap kept 45 qualified females from becoming state troopers despite the physical fitness test being unrelated to the performance of the job.

The DOJ is seeking a court order to end to the physical fitness test and to require defendants “to provide make-whole relief, including backpay with interest, offers of employment, retroactive seniority, and other benefits to women who have suffered losses or will suffer losses” because of the state police’s policies. A spokesperson for current Gov. Tom Corbett (R) said lawyers for the state are reviewing the DOJ’s lawsuit.

“The Department of Justice is deeply committed to eliminating artificial barriers that keep qualified women out of public safety work,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. She reiterated the Department’s overall commitment to challenge all discriminatory hiring practices on the basis of sex.

“Despite overwhelming evidence that women and men are equally capable of police work,” a 2002 report by the Feminist Majority Foundation found “widespread bias in police hiring, selection practices and recruitment policies keeps the numbers of women in law enforcement artificially low.” According to data collected by the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the number of women within state police departments has traditionally been sparse. Nationwide, in 2007, only about 6.5 percent of full-time state police and highway patrol officers were women, representing only a small increase from 1987 when women were only 3.8 percent of state police departments.

Media Resources: US Department of Justice 7/29/14; Reuters 7/29/14; DOJ Bureau of Justice Crime 6/10; Feminist Majority Foundation 4/02