Why was the study done?
Police officers are at greater risk of experiencing mental disorder symptoms than members of the general public. The risk is even greater for women in policing, who appear 1.66 times more likely than their men colleagues to screen positive for a mental disorder.
Research has shown possible reasons for this gender difference, including organizational stresses specific to women like gender bias, discrimination, and sexual harassment. As a result, men and women police officers may have different experiences of work-related stress.
The goal of the current study was to explore the experiences of police officers from a gendered perspective. The researchers aimed to identify common and differing themes in the experiences of men and women police officers.
What was done in the study?
Participants were recruited through the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police. They released a poster and a memo detailing the study to their police organizations. Eight men and nine women completed interviews either in person or over the phone. The researchers recorded their interviews. The recordings were analyzed and coded before being organized into themes.
What did we find out?
- Both men and women police officers indicated they experienced the impacts of restrictive gender norms in policing.
- All women participants indicated they had experienced some form of gendered discrimination and/or sexual harassment.
- None of the men participants reported experiencing or witnessing gender-based discrimination or harassment.
- Through the participant’s interviews six main themes around gender differences were identified:
- Sexual harassment
- Motherhood & parental leave
- Stereotypical feminine qualities
- Hegemonic Masculinity (A hierarchy based on masculinity).
- Gender-based discrimination experienced from peers and leadership was both blatant and covert.
- Women participants reported a double-standard on competency ratings, which left them feeling like they had to prove themselves more.
- Women participants reported being undermined, less respected, criticized, judged more harshly, and treated unequally.
- Women participants reported moving up the ranks at a slower rate. Some chose not to pursue higher ranks due to experiences of discrimination.
- Women reported that their men colleagues were generally unaware of these differences.
- Sexual Harassment:
- Women participants reported harassing behaviour from peers and superiors that ranged from dark humour to unwanted sexual contact.
- Women exclusively reported difficultly in creating a reputation, which rumours of affairs or sexual jokes could quickly tarnish.
- Motherhood & parental leave:
- Women reported difficulty getting the same career opportunities due to motherhood and having disproportionate responsibility for their families.
- Men were not encouraged to take parental leave.
- There was no opt-out option for pension and benefits for those on leave which left women feeling like they couldn’t afford another child.
- When asked about themselves, men participants spoke of their careers and job duties first. For women, policing was considered as only one aspect of their identity.
- All participants said it was challenging to set aside their identity as police officers when off duty. However, men officers found it more difficult to separate from their role and reported feeling held to a higher standard even as civilians.
- Stereotypical feminine qualities:
- Women were described as more analytical, good listeners, motherly, gentle, nurturing, good communicators, and being softer.
- Many participants viewed these qualities as advantageous for policing.
- Women participants believed their inherent qualities left them assigned to specific calls like sexual assault or youth support. Women felt that men were prioritized for more hands-on or dangerous calls.
- Some men indicated that feminine qualities made women officers better occupational partners. However, certain men officers also stated that they felt these characteristics impacted women in being more focused on “compassion” than duty and was perceived negatively by these men.
- Hegemonic Masculinity:
- Participants indicated that masculinity was highly valued and described as a central aspect of policing.
- Men officers reported that they were expected to be big, strong, bold, and tough.
- Women officers reported that their emotions were ascribed to their gender. They were dismissed or taken less seriously when displaying emotion.
- Men officers reported that their social status could be impacted if they displayed more stereotypically feminine qualities.
Where do we go from here?
This study has some limitations. A primary limitation is that the participants were self-selected to be involved, which means they likely had an interest in the topic; in addition, all participants were from one province. However, the study did illustrate that there are varied experiences between men and women police officers. The participants also offered suggestions to improve organizational practices in order to address gendered experiences. These suggestions are increasing staffing, formal maternity leave planning, on-site daycare, and involvement of women in planning and policymaking. Men participants indicated they had not witnessed any discrimination or harassment, but all women had experienced discrimination and harassment. This difference in experience might suggest that more education is needed. Police organizations and police colleges should teach about gender challenges and encourage all recruits to collaborate to improve work environments.
The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.
Angehrn, A., Fletcher, A.J., & Carleton, R.N. (2021). “Suck it up, buttercup”: Understanding and overcoming gender disparities in policing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18 (7627). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18147627
Summary prepared by Kossick, E Edited & reviewed by Barootes, B. & Angehrn, A.