“[B]ecause you will be one of the few women in your agency, every mistake you make will be noticed and you cannot fade into the background.” -Penny E. Harrington
Policing is an ever changing profession. Current trends in law enforcement may lead to the gender equalization of the field, but women still comprise less than 15% of the police workforce and hold an even smaller percentage of supervisory and leadership positions. Even though women have been patrolling the streets for over thirty years, equality has yet to reach every member of law enforcement, specifically women and minorities. While not as bad as it once was, women face many challenges when both entering into the field of law enforcement, and promoting to leadership positions within the agencies in which they work.
One of the first challenges a women must face when entering the field of policing are physical agility exams. Most agencies throughout the Nation use some form of physical agility testing, which is usually scored on a pass/fail basis—so one must pass the test in order to go further into the hiring process. Each agency develops their own tests and standards by which to evaluate candidates; there is no standardization for applicants and the tests vary from city to city and state to state. For men, most of these tasks are simple as men have more upper body strength and are statistically taller than women (making it easier to get over a six foot fence). According to a study conducted by the National Center for Women & Policing (2003) agencies that do not require a physical agility test have 45% more sworn female officers than agencies that require a physical agility exam. As a female currently going through the application processes, I can personally vouch for numerous females that fail the agility tests though the simple fact that they cannot make it over the fences.
If a female can pass the physical agility testing—and the rest of the hiring process—the next step is attending an academy. Each academy is different; all train recruits for routine police work such as vehicle stops, shooting, report writing, defense tactics, and medical emergencies, yet some academies focus more on scholastic ability while other focus more on physical ability. Upon graduation of the academy the new peace officer must adapt to the harsh reality of what policing truly is, as opposed to what they thought it would be, or was taught it would be. During this stage, new officers are assigned to a Field Training Officer that teaches them ‘the ropes’. Texeira (2002) and many other researchers have found that around this time in a female officer’s career they will find that is it not the community, their families, or the work that makes their job difficult, but rather the harassment of their male coworkers and supervisors.
After passing Field Training a new officer must finish their probationary period, which usually lasts around a year to a year and a half, after which an officer becomes very difficult to fire. Once probation has passed, officers follow their own career paths, many of which lead to promotion to higher ranks. Women have always faced difficulty being promoted to higher ranks. Up until the 1980’s the total number of female police chiefs amounted to less than 10. In 2001, women in large agencies held 7.3% of top command positions, 9.6% of supervisory positions, and 13.5% of line operation positions; in small agencies women held 3.4% of all top command positions, 4.6% of all supervisory positions, and 9.7% of all line operations positions (National Center for Women & Policing, 2002). These percentages show that while the glass ceiling has cracked, it certainly has not fallen away completely; women still face many setbacks on their way to the top of ladder.
Throughout their careers as law enforcement officers, women face many difficulties in each stage of their career. Through hiring, Field Training, probation, and promotion women face many challenges that men do not, adding to their low numbers in law enforcement. However, the number of female officers and women holding top ranking positions continues to rise.
Harrington, P. E. (2003). Advice to Women Beginning a Career in Policing. Women & Criminal Justice 14: 1 , 1-13.
National Center for Women & Policing. (2002). Equality Denied The Status of Women in Policing: 2002.
National Center for Women & Policing. (2003). Tearing Down the Wall: Problems With Consistency, Validity, And Adverse Impact Of Physical Agility Testing In Police Selection. Police Quarterly, Issue 3 .
Texeira, M. T. (2002). Who protects and serves me? A case study of sexual harassment of African American women in one U.S. law enforcement agency. Gender & Society, 16: 4 , 524-545.
 For most agencies in California an applicant must complete the following: scale a six foot solid fence, scale a six foot chain link fence, drag a dummy weighing around 150lbs for a certain footage, execute a 90 foot obstacle course, and run anywhere from 500 yards to over 1.5 miles. Each agency sets their own standards and creates their own physical agility tests, but there are norms. Most agencies require that you can scale each fence in under 20 seconds, drag the dummy the required length in under 30 seconds, complete the obstacle course in under [away from home; I need to look at my docs to get this], and run one mile in under 10 minutes. Other tasks can include sit-ups, push-ups, pushing a patrol unit, jumping through windows, testing grip strength…