Women on the beat

British police woman_480p

2015 marks 100 years since Edith Smith became the first female police officer in Britain with powers of arrest. Today, women make up 28 per cent of the force but the struggle for acceptance is far from over.

Earlier this month, the Home Secretary Theresa May gave a speech celebrating the centenary of women in policing in the UK. The irony of this was not lost on her audience, who learned it was May’s own department which was among the first to challenge the recruitment of female police officers back in 1915 – deeming them ‘improper persons’.

In 2015, 35,000 female officers are employed in England and Wales, including 19 per cent at inspector level. The Service is about to appoint Lynne Owens as the new Director General of the National Crime Agency and four other women head national policing bodies.

It sounds encouraging, but the journey has been a difficult one and a number of roadblocks still lie ahead, says LSE researcher Jennifer Brown.

The co-director of LSE’s Mannheim Centre for Criminology and former police service employee has been studying gender issues in the UK police force for the past 20 years.

On the 100th anniversary of Edith Smith’s trailblazing appointment, Professor Brown is about to embark on a detailed survey of gender discrimination and harassment in the police force across England and Wales.

Jennifer Brown_140pTwo years ago, Professor Brown’s own research found that 24 per cent of female police officers experienced harassment and a further 10 per cent were discriminated against in relation to pregnancy and maternity issues.

“The fact that a quarter of women are reporting these incidents 40 years after the Sex Discrimination Act was passed is woeful,” she says.

The most recent high profile case involved Carol Howard, a black police officer who was awarded £37,000 damages in 2014 after a year-long campaign of “malicious and oppressive” discrimination by Scotland Yard.

Howard’s vindication has led to the Met reviewing its grievance procedures, but the stain of gender discrimination still lingers.

Brown says the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 actually made harassment and discrimination more overt. Female police officers – who previously worked in a separate department – were integrated with their male counterparts, upsetting the status quo.

“The integration process was badly managed with no preparation or training and women found themselves supervising men, many who resisted strongly.”

While equal opportunity legislation has been in place for 40 years, the cultural mentality in a male-dominated domain is still entrenched, Brown says.

“One of the big problems is that the police service still hasn’t got its head around part-time working, maternity breaks and job sharing. There is a mind-set which persists in the force which says if you are not heart, soul and mind, 24/7 on the job, you are not signed up properly.”

But there are signs that progress is slowly being made on the gender front, notwithstanding the resistance from some quarters.

New models of policing are being introduced, which plays very strongly in women’s favour, Brown says.

The reforms include the College of Policing, set up by the Home Secretary to professionalise the police force and improve diversity and equality in its ranks.

A focus on flexible working is part of its mission and the college has already signalled support for changes in the recruitment, progression and retention of under-represented officers.

“This is a huge sea change for the police force. As part of these reforms, there is now a strong commitment to processes which deal with people in a fair, transparent and respectful way,” Brown adds.

The LSE researcher points to an identity crisis for the UK police force, caught between a traditional model of policing – where policing was learned on the street and officers worked their way up the ranks – and a new focus on policing as a graduate, evidence-based profession with different skill sets.

“There is a lot of ambivalence and resistance to this new model but the nature of policing is changing. We know that, overall, crime is going down but sexual violence incidents are increasing. Cybercrime is also on the rise and both those areas require different skills.”

A series of police scandals in recent years has also triggered what LSE Visiting Professor Francis Heidensohn called “a desperate remedy” – where the police service and public turn to women as an antidote to corruption.

“Historically, in times of crisis, women are put into senior positions in the force because they are seen to be untainted by corrupt behaviour. Worldwide, when you look at complaints against police, even accounting for the different proportions, women officers receive far fewer complaints,” Brown says.

However, we still have a way to go before women reach the so-called “tipping point” for acceptable gender ratios – 35 per cent.

“The police force is in a state of flux right now,” Brown says. “It is coping with a lot of change, societal pressures and questions of legitimacy. Increasing the numbers of women among its ranks is pivotal to managing that change,” Brown says.

Additional notes

Professor Jennifer Brown is a chartered forensic psychologist and co-director of the Mannheim Centre for Criminology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She was also the deputy chair of the Independent Commission looking at the future of policing in England and Wales. Professor Brown previously worked as research manager for the Hampshire Constabulary where she undertook pioneering studies of stress among police officers and sex discrimination experienced by women police.

She has just completed a re-assessment of Francis Heidensohn’s 1992 book Women in Control? The role of women in law enforcement.  Professor Heidensohn is a feminist criminologist who has a long-standing association with LSE.

Posted December 2015