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Challenges & Recommendations for the Aspiring Women Police Leaders

Women in law enforcement bring talent, intelligence and ability to the policing profession.

Not every woman is a leader, but every woman can lead within her area of responsibility or influence. The challenges of the profession have never been greater, therefore now is the time for women police leaders of all ranks and positions to bring new ideas and strategies to improve the quality of the law enforcement profession.

Leadership means bringing both change and unity. Leadership is an intangible quality, yet we know it when we have experienced it. In spite of the multitude concepts, leadership generally 1) involves a process; 2) involves influence; 3) occurs in a group context; and involves goal attainment.

Leadership is not bound by rank or position; instead, it involves certain traits, including flexibility, inner thought, inspiration, and the courage to take risks. The women who paved the way for females in policing used their feminine personality strengths and skills in leadership to better their professions.

Many of the women in the history of policing hold “first” positions, such as the first female agent, or first female team member. Women continue to expand their roles and assignments in law enforcement. Even though these “first” women do not all hold management positions, they all have the potential for leadership in law enforcement.

Leadership and Feminism

Women in law enforcement work within the male dominated system, choosing to act under their rules, and, therefore, take on some masculine traits in order to function effectively. Taking on these traits does not mean a woman has to give up feminine traits. In fact, it has been suggested that the world of law enforcement has enough people to knock down doors – what is needed may be more of a different kind of officer.

By using feminine traits, such as team building and communication, a woman can bring complementary assets to law enforcement without losing her femininity. Women in leadership are usually the oldest daughter. They tend to be close with their fathers. Nevertheless, research shows that women no longer need to show off masculine traits in order to be accepted into a male dominated profession, such as law enforcement. Their natural personalities and skills bring new tools to law enforcement, diversifying the field and adding a different viewpoint to their agency.

A Different Point of View

Since women think differently and interact with people differently than men, they run the risk of being misunderstood. Women are at times criticized about the length of time it takes them to make a decision. Exploring every angle before acting only works in certain situations. That is why women and men in law enforcement should work in tandem. Women in law enforcement should use their team building skills to promote leadership.

Women are natural communicators. They should use this ability to promote effective communication among team members. “Gender intelligence” means acknowledging the differences between men and women, while seeing the benefits of both genders. For example, women tend to excel at community policing and use less force than men.

Women can continue to overcome policing stereotypes by intentionally developing the competencies, qualities and characteristics required to achieve leadership positions in their chosen profession. Women who aspire to leadership positions may certainly learn from the lessons of women who have gone before them.

There are several key lessons identified from women who have achieved formal and informal leadership positions within law enforcement organizations. These women police leaders provide some lessons learned on the competencies, qualities and strategies, which may be used by those aspiring to be leaders in the profession of law enforcement.


The women in law enforcement certainly reflect the increasing level of education achieved by women police chiefs. For women who have demonstrated leadership ability, formal education is an effective career advancement strategy. Education provides opportunities for hire, promotion and experience necessary to achieve leadership goals. Completing education above the requirements shows diligence and provides the qualifications needed to overcome discrimination in the world place.

In a study on women managers, all the participants attended college and completed their degrees. For women aspiring to become police chiefs a graduate degree is recommended and the recommended degree category is business or public administration. These academic fields help prepare individuals for administrative responsibilities.

Plan and Prepare for Promotion

For women who are interested in formal leadership positions within administration, planning and preparing for promotion is a must. Consider this, if too many women forego the promotional process over time, law enforcement agencies face a long-term reality of having insufficient numbers of women in the middle ranks to fill command positions in the future. Women aspiring to administration should plan and prepare for promotions by studying the agency general orders, getting advancement training, reading law enforcement literature, and identifying a mentor for professional coaching.

Mobility as a Career Advancement Strategy

The higher the rank one aspires to a law enforcement professional, particularly if one aspires to be a police chief, then the more likely it is that he/she will need to consider mobility as a career advancement strategy.

In a statistical study of women police chiefs it was reported that two-thirds of the chiefs were no longer in agencies in which they had entered policing. Mobility as a career strategy requires planning and preparation that must involve the family’s cooperation and support to be effective.

Having a Mentor

The idea of a mentor still remains the same, as one with experience teaches, advises, and shares wisdom with one who hopes to hold the same or similar position as the more experienced individual. The more experienced and skilled person is known as the mentor while the less-skilled and inexperienced individual is known as a mentee or a protégé. Mentoring programs can either be initiated by an individual looking for advice or required by the agency that employs the individual. Mentoring has been identified as crucial to helping female law enforcement officers advance.

Many outcomes are seen as beneficial for the protégés in the law enforcement mentoring program such as 1) increases likelihood for success – mentors help protégés gain competency and avoid failure; 2) assists protégés in setting goals and charting career paths; 3) encourages and provides opportunities for new experiences and professional growth; 4) helps the protégé avoid pitfalls and learn through real-life examples; 5) enhances the protégés’ feeling of worth to the mentor and the organization; and 6) encourages self-confidence by celebrating protégé achievements.

Family Life and Career Must be Compatible

The challenges, risks, and working hours of the law enforcement field are above and beyond what is required in most other professions. Therefore all who aspire to these jobs or have them must balance family and career. Historically and currently obtaining compatibility and balance with the law enforcement job is generally more challenging for women than men.

For both men and women, no amount of career success is worth irreparable harm to the family. Having said that, in a job that requires additional sacrifice and risks should be pursued with involvement, support and agreement with the members of one’s immediate family. It is recommended that a written career plan be developed with input, feedback and the involvement of one’s immediate family.

Develop and Demonstrate Leadership Ability

It is not necessary that someone occupy a formal leadership position to demonstrate the ability to lead. You lead from where you are. Leaders are needed on every level of an organization. Whatever position you find yourself in, is where you should focus on currently making a difference. Your current job is the gateway to future opportunities. Therefore, focus on making a positive difference where you are now.

To enhance your ability and effectiveness in leading, intentionally study the practice of leadership. You cannot lead with change and you cannot change without leading. A woman aspiring to be a police leader must be willing to be an agent of change in the agency, much like the women who were “first” in their departments.

Exceptional Factors of Success

Women law enforcement leaders who succeeded have been described as having a sense of vocation to their community, leading to a pioneering spirit, which allowed them to serve as a role model for other women in law enforcement. The weight of the research evidence on women police leaders leads us to the hypothesis that those who succeed despite the barriers are “exceptional women” rather than being representative.

Some of the exceptional features articulated regarding these leaders included: determination, hard work, courage, drive, commitment, confidence, respect for other cultures, building positive relations, and thorough preparation for leadership. Women inherently possess feminine qualities useful for police work, which should help motivate women to lead in their careers.

Women aspiring to lead in law enforcement must acquire the competencies, qualities and characteristics required to achieve in their chosen profession. They should pursue these attributes with the determination of those women law enforcement leaders who have gone before them.

Law enforcement agencies, however, must contribute to their leadership potential by providing career development opportunities and inclusion in the workplace assignments. Aspiring women leaders must not be discouraged by discrimination or other challenges along the way to greatness. Many women leaders have gone before them, paving road for them to follow. Now more than ever law enforcement needs the contribution of women in the field to confront the varied and complex challenges of the profession.

Patrick Oliver (police chief, retired) is a professor of Criminal Justice at Cedarville University ( and may be reached at Jessica Lagucki is a Criminal Justice student at Cedarville University.

Published in Law and Order, May 2012

Rating : 9.9

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