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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
Q. “It’s not blatant sexism, it’s more like a sexual undercurrent” (Female Police Officer cited in Foster et al. 2005). From your reading of the broader research literature, how well does this statement describe police working culture? Review the implications of your answer for the role and status of women in the police.
“I do not wish them (women) to have power over men, but over themselves.” Women have historically played the role of the protected not the protector. The police force is historically a male orientated domain. Policing was seen as a job allocated to tough, manful acts of crime-fighting and thief-taking. This lent itself to a male, macho culture in which women played no part. As aptly put by Malcolm Young, “the opportunities for women are constrained by hierarchies of dominance in which the masculine view prioritizes”. For this reason gender is a difficult concept in the masculine culture it creates. For the few women who did enter into this male club they were assigned to station duties as opposed to pounding the street. The initial idea of policing was strongly linked to masculinity, historically males were responsible for physical labour and protection of the family. Women have had to fight hard against this stereotype and it is an uphill struggle they seem still to be fighting today, however with the emergence of this discrimination brought forth by the Stephen Lawrence tragedy, policing has come under tight scrutiny. In order to fully examine whether there is discrimination towards women in the police force there needs to be a discussion on women’s history, outlining any progress over the years, and experience in modern day policing. This will uncover the dominance of any discrimination and the steps taken to counter it.
Before any such analysis can take place there must be analysis into what constitutes an “undercurrent”. Is it present if one officer said something weekly, should it be rather a group of officers and what is the frequency of this behaviour? conversely what is the definition of “blatant” sexism. Is it blatant if the comment is directed straight to a women about an issue solely related to women, “quote about period”. Also can this be said to be “sexism” as a concept or simply miss placed humour? “Blatant” is defined as, “without any attempt at concealment; completely obvious”. These two ideas are not easily categorised, they appear to have a fluid quality rather than definite perimeters. In order to understand these things as a concept there needs to be an examination of modern and past policing and the resulting experiences.
Women being fully integrated into the police force is a recent development. Previously women police officers were a separate part of the police. Margaret Damer Dawson, an anti-white slavery campaigner, and Nina Boyle, a militant suffragette journalist founded the Women Police Service in 1914. This was made up of women volunteers and it was not until 1930, women police were fully attested and given limited powers of arrest. In 1969 the women’s branch of officers was dissolved in anticipation of the Equal Pay Act. Despite this women police were still treated as a separate section of the service. Women were not completely integrated into the police force until 1973. This suggests any discrimination faced by women may not be direct as could be seen towards women in the army, where women are excluded from positions which require face-to-face combat with the enemy. There has been legislation put in place to help with this integration but despite the apparent willingness to treat women as equals there may still be an undercurrent of sexism throughout the force.
The first step seen to integrate women in the UK was the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. This Act made it unlawful to discriminate against women, either directly or indirectly, in the field of employment. It seemed optimistic at best to think that one act of parliament could change a history of discrimination and ingrained ideas about gender. The male culture was not keen for radical change from their conservative origins. This prevalent masculine culture is shown from a quote taken after the legislation was passed from sergeant Sheena Thomas, “before I was promoted, a senior officer told me that once I remembered I was a “mere” woman and not police officer, I would get on far better.” A challenge to the male dominated structure was not welcome making application not openly enforced. The history of policing is important in discussing modern policing as it allows for a better understanding of society ideals, as Reiner said, “An understanding of how police officers see the social world and their role in it – ‘cop culture’ – is crucial to an analysis of what they do and their broad political function”. In recent statistics a division between women and male officers is prominent in not only the amount of female officers but also in promotional positions.
According to the official statistics dated 31st March 2009 across England and Wales, women are not a particularly well represented group in the police force. The number of full time officers reached 141,647, out of these 32.8% were female police officers. This illustrates how women are still a minority group in the police force however there is further data that may give more weight to a claim of sexism in police practice. Women, in the same year of statistical data, were also shown to be under represented in positions of authority in the police. Examples are as follows;
Male Female Total percentage
Chief superintendent 448 60 508 12%
Superintendent 938 120 1,058 11%
However at the lowest position there is a greater equality in distribution;
Male Female Total percentage
Constable 79,430 30,801 110,231 28%
The difference in numbers between women and men in the powerful positions could relate to the lower numbers of women applying to the police force. The question has to be asked is why are so few women applying to the force?
There could be many reasons why women do not apply to the force, the obvious issue which stands out when thinking about police work and the gender divide is the nature of the work. This is generally thought to be male orientated due to the notion of the physical aspect attached to the job and the danger involved in it. Women’s bodies have become a way of defining their readiness for the job. The idea of women as weak creatures is reflected in the police force, mainly in regard to physical strength. This presumed weakness reflects both physical and mental readiness, for the ‘crime fighting’ nature of the job. In reality however this stereotypical idea of what police work involves may not be representative of reality. Much of police work involves administration and petty crime prevention, it is not the fast pace, dangerous profession TV may imply. For this reason it is hard to see why any physical differences between male and females should make a real difference in the active duty of a police officer, “self image of the police is that of ‘crime-fighters’ and this is not just a distortion of what they do, it is virtually a collective delusion”
Another aspect that leads the police to a more male orientated idea is the offenders with which they deal. As the majority of crimes are committed by men the job lends itself to male officers. This is to do with matching strength, males are seen as the stronger of the two and viewed as better equipped to deal with male offenders.
The above statistics show that women are under represented in the police force, but what of the distribution of males and females in positions of power, does the unequal distribution reflect the smaller numbers of women in the force or sexual discrimination? The ratio of men to women in the constable role almost parallels the percentage of the overall police force between women and men, at 28%. This cannot be said of the higher positions. For example the total number of superintendents is merely 11%. This percentage discrepancy between males and females in positions of authority does not match that of the lower ranks, making me more inclined to agree with Sandra and her opinion of women‘s promotional opportunities: “once recruited, their road to the top is certainly a ‘greasy pole’”.
Research which supports this claim is evident over the years. Kinsey (1985) took empirical evidence in Merseyside that showed 43% of officers under 30 on station duty (least prestigious job) were women. Coffey, Brown and Savage (1992) showed findings that women were under represented in many special departments and totally absent from others. Brown, Maidment and Bull (1992) researched deployment patterns of women police officers which showed that they gravitated towards “low frequency labour intensive specialised tasks”. An example given for such tasks was supporting rape victims. Anderson, Brown and Campbell said “women officers are limited in the amount and type of experiences they are able to gain. This in turn affects their job satisfaction and may inhibit their promotion prospects. That fewer women than men achieve promotion in turn can reinforce male stereotype about women’s abilities”
Research had shown that women feel “undermined and undervalued” by the predominantly male, heterosexual culture. They felt that their roles in the team were often restricted and that they had to work a great deal harder than their male counterparts to “prove themselves”. As one officer said, “the only thing I can do is just put my head down, work hard and prove myself. Which is depressing, but it’s reality isn’t it. The only way I can earn respect is to work harder than everybody else.”
This apparent sexual discrimination has not managed to escape the courts when in 1992 Alison Halford, who was the highest ranked serving female officer with the position of assistant chief constable, pursued a sexual discrimination case against Merseyside police Authority. This was a high profile case widely reported in the media about Alison not getting a promotion she felt she deserved after nine attempts to secure the job. The case resulted in a victory and subsequently encouraged other women to take action and in that same year a number of other cases were reported in the media. . However for some it was seen as a step backwards when one senior female police officer said, “It has not improved the image of the police and for that reason I wonder whether it has not ultimately damaged the cause of equal opportunities”. The case did not go unnoticed with three female duty Chief Constables being appointed by 1994 and the first women Chief Constable, Pauline Clare, who headed the Lancashire Police
Having analysed the recruitment of women into the police and some of the reasons why fewer women go on to join the force than men it leads us to discuss the experiences of women who become policewomen. The police are nested in society so it could be said the female role in society, reflects their role in the police. By this I refer to women not being allow to join the front line of the army or other protective stances society takes towards women. In the research by Wersch it was found that women were associated with “suspect” specialisms which was known as “warm, fuzzy policing”. This reflects the idea of protecting women from the harder crimes, which involved more danger, by limiting their roles within the force. So does this mean that roles in the police force are “gendered” or simply that women find this sort of work easier than their male counterparts? In a US study by Miller it was concluded that women find it not only more comfortable to deal with the “image of social work, the “touchy-feely” type tasks it involved”, but were also better at that particular type of job. However it appears that a general statement such as this is sweeping in its assumption that all women as a category find this work “comfortable”. Many women in the police force feel there is no choice being assigned duties based on their gender and however hard they “tried to be just “one of the boys” all had to face questions about their role and status”.
The aforementioned need to be “one of the boys” has been researched as a coping mechanism in order to be treated on a equal footing as their male counter parts. Women feel pressure by the macho culture to either get on with the job given or take on the characteristics of their male counterparts, “macho characteristics”. Both this idea and that of promotional opportunities are seen in the writing on Malcolm Young, “Women who do breach the boundary to penetrate this masculine world can only ever be partially successful and will often have to subsume “male characteristics” to achieve even limited social acceptability”. This apparent adoption of masculine qualities make women who stay in the force, “tolerated almost as honorary men”. The idea was excellently summarised by Ehrlich-Martin (1980) by identifying strategies of POLICEwomen or policeWOMEN, the choice between fulfilling their traditional role associated with women in society or adopting the male culture. However even women who do not adopt these characteristics and instead opt for traditionally female posts have a hard time. A male officer described a female officers work in the schools liaison department, “No cold Saturday nights working the town and lots of school holidays – what does she do when the kids are off?” (male PC 1994). Women appear to be at a disadvantage no matter what road they choose.
Discrimination within the police force came to a head with the tragedy of Steven Lawrence sparking great debate about discrimination within society. Steven was a young black youth who was killed by a group of white youths. The police inquiry was said to be led by racial discrimination and initiated an inquiry. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry led to an exclusion of racial language in the force. For many this was reduced through risk of being disciplined rather than a change in attitude. It was said by a “PC in site 7 that officers did not use racist language because it was too risky: “Too many people are scared of not grassing you up”. This would suggest that without changing attitude through education and understanding the once “canteen culture” will be driven under ground and “felt in less overt forms of discrimination”.
This infamous inquiry led to a close scrutiny of the force and a home Officer research project entitled “Assessing the impact of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry” . The main aim of which was to evaluate the impact of the inquiry, examining the changes it made and the relationships within the force. While it recognised progress made such as “the recording, monitoring and responses to hate crime” and “the general excision of racist language from the police service”, there was evidence that these developments were not employed uniformly across the force. The inquiry drew out, not only the structural dimensions of the police in relation to women, but also their treatment day to day through the observational nature of the research.
Its clear that structurally the force is kinder to the male in terms of numbers and promotional opportunities but what of the day to day treatment women face. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry was said by many police officers to have removed the workplace “banter” with one officer saying, “you can’t have a laugh and a joke like you could” However for many minority groups and women this was not a negative thing as they often found themselves on the end of such “banter”. One female officer stated she, “developed quite a hard skin”. The issue relating to the women’s responses to the question, in my option, lies in the question itself. So what is this “banter” and does it in fact reflect a sexism undertone. This idea of humiliation was identified in Chaplin’s work by saying that with pre-existing social structures, defining women as domestic beings and men in the public sphere is enhanced in the police force creating social conflict and humiliation. Policewomen are often on the end of so called “banter” which reflects their body or that of women around them. The body of women are discussed, measured and laughed at. It is ogled and lusted over, sneered at, ridiculed, drooled over and constrained into a repressed form. Women are seen as over sensitive creatures meaning women feel to complain about this “banter” between work colleagues would be to reaffirm the male suspicion. Evidence of this is shown in Malcolm Young’s research when he states that, “In the 300 nicknames in my fieldname collection, those relating to women almost always symbolize size and ugliness or fasten onto an allegedly sexual potency.”
Much of the research on this subject agree that there is sexism in the police with the discussion centring around the degree of its prominence however this is not a completely accepted view. Criticism has been made of some literature based on their assumption that police sub-culture is the “principal guide to action” Waddington argues that this overlooks wider culture, which in turn makes “police culture” not an insular idea, but a reflection of “stories, myths and anecdotes of their wider culture” Although much of his other arguments appear unfounded this does strike a cord concerning what annotation the term brings up. Perhaps as Janet Chan said, “police culture has become a convenient label for a range of negative values, attitudes and practice norms among officers”. This term, by way of its implied expectations of behaviour, causes people who have had no experience with the police to become “armchair critics”, overlooking the “honest, polite, non-violent, non-racist and non-sexist” officers evidently in the force.
Any marginalisation in the police appears to stem from societies traditional role of women. With the police being nested in society and many of the officers being working class males from lower class backgrounds it appears less of a blatant sexism and more of a lack of education and social upbringing. Sexism cannot be said to be blatant due to the progress of women’s integration into the police force. However there is clearly some form of sexual undercurrent stemming from promotional opportunities available to female officers and the “banter” they experience in everyday work. With society changing there is a new perception as to a women and their place and abilities, so as to women’s future in the police I would be inclined to look on it favourably recognising a better understanding in society as a whole. With the emergence of new police officers there will hopefully be a change in stereotypical views of women, through better education and understanding. Throughout this analysis “women” have been seen as a category and not individuals, perhaps it is in this generalisation that the problem finds it routes, “Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, “She doesn’t have what it takes.” They will say, “Women don’t have what it takes.”
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