An Old Answer Resurfaces

Written by Dr. Carole Garrison

An old answer resurfaces to why there aren’t more women in police work. Recently I began browsing the internet looking for some new material to “top up” my Women in Policing course.  While there has been no major research on the topic since the late 1990’s we have had sporadic updates in the status of women in policing.  For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics last update (2008) reported that in 2007, about 1 in 8 local police officers were women, compared to 1 in 13 in 1987.  In a short article for PoliceOne.Com in 2013, Val Van Brocklin stated that as of 2010, women still made up just 11.9 percent of all sworn police positions in America. That percentage is the average of a 17.9 percent high in large agencies to a 5.6 percent low in small agencies, with percentages in-between for mid-size agencies.

Van Brocklin went on to argue, that despite gains women have made in the past 30 years, they have stalled in policing. “Since 1971, the yearly gain of female police has been less than half of 1 percent. There’s mounting evidence this slow pace has stalled, or is possibly declining.”  While by comparison, as of 2010 women were more than half the population, voted in greater numbers than their male counterparts, earned 57.6 of bachelor’s degrees and a majority of master’s and doctorate degrees.” She also notes that women controlled nearly 60 percent of the wealth in America and 60% of those women had earned their fortunes on their own.

Women are clearly finding equality in some places in American life. 

Poor marketing, physical agility tests, sexual harassment, swing shifts that disrupt family life and negative media portrayal are the major barriers to women in law enforcement suggested by past research. Van Brocklin, however, asks, “Is the profession holding women back, or do women lack the ambition?” She compares the relatively low numbers of policewomen with the low numbers of women in political office—this, despite evidence that women who do run, do as well or better than men.  She cites a 2012 study called “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics” which concluded, “There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t.”   

What struck me was that Van Brocklin has raised an argument dating back to the early 1980s gender discrimination suit against Sears, Roebuck & Co, as well as in another more recent case against Wal-Mart. Sears settled out of court and Wal-Mart won its case.  Both argued that women’s underrepresentation in certain positions was a matter of preference.  Women were simply not interested.

In our own PLS programs women account, on average, for 36% of our online program and 27% of our on campus PLS program. These numbers are substantially higher than the percentage of women currently in the field. So, my question to you, students and potential students, is whether the profession or women themselves — or both — are the reason for our significant under-representation in policing, what might we do about it? Feel free to join the discussion and email me at

Published on May 20, 2014