GAINS FOR WOMEN IN POLICING STALLED: Under-Representation of Women Harms Law Enforcement

The National Center for Women & Policing, a division of the Feminist Majority Foundation, has released a study on the Status of Women in 100 of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country. The report, Equality Denied: The Status of Women in Policing, examines the gains and gaps in the numbers of women in policing and the major barriers keeping women from increasing their numbers in law enforcement.

“The increase of women in law enforcement remains stuck at an alarmingly slow rate,” said Chief Penny Harrington, Director of the National Center for Women & Policing. “Over the last 26 years, women have increased their representation in sworn law enforcement positions to only 11.6% in 1997 from 2% in 1972 — or at an annual rate of gain of barely one-third of one percentage point per year. At this present rate of growth, women will never achieve equality in law enforcement agencies,” continued Chief Harrington.

Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, commented, “The data is clear that women have made progress only in police departments where women officers and women’s organizations have taken legal action to fight the discriminatory hiring and promotion practices of law enforcement agencies, and where court ordered consent decrees have forced agencies to increase the numbers of women or minorities hired and promoted.”

As detailed in the report, the barriers keeping women from entering law enforcement include biased entry tests and recruitment policies that unfairly favor men over women. “Experts agree that the single largest barrier to increasing the numbers of women in policing is the attitudes and behavior of their male colleagues,” continued Smeal. “Nationwide studies consistently find that discrimination and sexual harassment are pervasive in police departments and that supervisors and commanders not only tolerate such practices by others, but are frequently perpetrators themselves.”

“The under-representation of women in policing is not just unfair – it is perpetuating a style of policing which is outdated, ineffective, and enormously costly to communities,” said Kathy Spillar, National Coordinator of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “Study after study shows that women officers are not as likely as their male counterparts to be involved in the use of excessive force.”

With lawsuits due to excessive force by male law enforcement personnel costing millions of dollars of taxpayer money every year, the actual and potential liability for cities and states is staggering.”

“Studies also show that women officers respond more effectively than their male counterparts to violence against women, which accounts for up to 50% of all calls to police. Yet this record stands in stark contrast to women’s dramatic under-representation in police departments where they make up less than 12% of sworn officers nationwide,” added Chief Harrington.

Key Findings:

In 1997, women comprise only 11.6% of all sworn law enforcement positions.

In the last seven years, women have increased their representation in sworn law enforcement ranks by only 2.2 percentage points, from 9.4% in 1990 to 11.6% in 1997.

The gains for women in policing are so slow that, at the current rate of growth, women will never reach equal representation or gender balance in law enforcement agencies.

Women hold only 7.4% of Top Command law enforcement positions, 8.8% of Supervisory positions and 12.5% of Line Operation positions.

More than 20% of agencies report no women in Top Command law enforcement positions.

Women hold 66% of lower-paid civilian law enforcement jobs.

State agencies trail local agencies by a wide margin. State agencies report 5.2% sworn women law enforcement officers, while municipal agencies report 14%, followed closely by county agencies with 13.1%.

Eight out of the 10 departments with the largest percentage of women in sworn officer positions are under or have recently


National Center for Women and Policing - May 19, 1998

Support eh ERA banner