Despite the widespread initiatives to promote equal employment opportunities and gender mainstreaming, there is a huge gender imbalance in police organisations across the world.
Among the key resolutions of the 13th Annual General Meeting of the Eastern African Police Chiefs Cooperation Organization (EAPCCO) held in Kigali, Rwanda from 11-16 September 2011 was to look again at the problem of gender imbalance in the respective police organisations.
Such an expressed commitment is an important step, but implementing it and correcting the problem will prove to be a challenging venture that requires correctly understanding and properly addressing the intricate issues behind the problem.
Policing has, and continuous to be a male dominated occupation. The problem is more severe in Africa and Asia. History tells us that women were not allowed to enter policing on the African continent until the 1950s and 60s.
The Australasian Council of Women and Police Journal published in 2006 indicated that women make up 20.9% of all police officers in Australia, 18.1% in the UK, 12.7% in the US, and the ratio varies between 2.2 to 19.1% in Asia. A recent assessment by the Institute for Security Studies in collaboration with the EAPCCO Secretariat, indicates that the ratio of female officers is lamentably low in the Eastern Africa region, Seychelles being an exception.
In some countries, such as Burundi, it goes down to 3%. Again, the ratio declines sharply as rank level increases. In this regard, there is no exception among the countries.
The imbalance is an injustice to women. It is discriminatory and contrary to equal employment opportunity imperatives. From the service recipients' perspective, it is also a matter of social injustice because the imbalance accounts to denial of the right of access to female police officers by female offenders and female victims of crime.
As the gender imbalance continues, women's impact on the law and order agenda and styles of policing will continue to be limited. The discrimination and other forms of gender-based violence will also continue to persist. In fields dominated by men, women face many barriers like opposition and resistance, organisational policies promoting gender separation, differential assignments, and sexual harassment.
Studies have supported an enhanced role for women in policing, and showed that women have a positive impact on styles of police work and conduct. Police roles are generally classified into either serving the public (protection and treatment of citizens) and functions of control (enforcing the law and order).
Empirical research findings reported in the Journal of Criminal Justice (Volume 35, Issue 6, 2007) have also shown that female officers are more likely than male officers to provide support to citizens.
Women police officers are generally less confrontational in dealing with the public, and less prone to abuse their power. It is also believed that increasing numbers of women in operational roles would result in the raising of ethical standards over time within the police organisation.
A Queensland Criminal Justice Commission's research proved that women police officers attract fewer complaints from the public, especially when it comes to allegations of excessive use of force.
Women leaders have increasingly been identified as key players in achieving organisational change in policing. Studies on senior policewomen (e.g. Policing and Society Journal, Volume 17, Number 1, 2007) suggest that they often adopt styles known as transformational leadership, which entails different approaches to leadership than those traditionally associated with police organisations. This style of leadership has become widely recognised as crucial to effecting real changes in the organisational environment.
Irrespective of such potential, there is a huge misconception concerning women and policing that impedes achieving gender balance. Traditionally, policing has been associated with stereotypes of masculinity. The occupation is considered uncomfortable for women and women in the police are often viewed as deviants. Women are systematically excluded because they were thought to be physically as well as temperamentally unsuited for the rigors of police work.
Explanations provided for the resistance also include beliefs that women fail to sustain police careers due to reproductive pressures. The bedrock of the barriers to women as police officers is, however, the cultural perspectives and orders that operate within society and reside within the police service.
Many police departments throughout the world, especially in Africa, follow an aggressive crime-fighting model that stresses the traditional masculine aspects of policing. Indeed, traditionally associated female traits do not favour force orientated policing. It is suggested by research that the uniquely gendered contributions of females are minimised in cases of traditional modes of policing.
But in reality, policing also involves providing diverse services, which do not need physical force and aggressiveness. Rather, they require activities and behaviours that most people, as well as police officers themselves tend to disdain as feminine. Such behaviours and activities are however promoted by the modern concepts and models of policing: service oriented policing, community policing, problem solving policing.
The prevalent gender imbalance itself has an impact on opportunities for the advancement of female officers. With a view to ensure better communication and reduce uncertainties, the male police leaders usually favour appointing male officers (similar individuals) in senior positions instead of female officers. Through this process, women continue to be excluded from upward mobility. That in turn sets up a cycle of discouragement and lowered motivation for female officers, which inhibits performance, reduces organisational recognition, and further limits chances of advancement.
On the other hand, female officers who happen to be in senior leadership positions are also negatively affected by the fact that they are very few in number. Since they are in a position that is considered unusual, they remain highly visible, and attract a disproportionate share of attention. Any defects, even the very minor ones, are quickly noticed, maximized, and used to reinforce the already established prejudices. Literature indicates that serving policewomen do aspire more to specialist duties, and they believe that they are thwarted from being appointed to leadership positions.
Major aspects of the solution are policy and strategies, structural reforms, and cultural transformation. Policy reform and gender awareness in policy design is a crucial precondition, but it is not a sufficient by itself to ensure gender equity. Gender imbalance and discrimination is continuing in many police organisations that have introduced equal employment opportunity legislation and a range of policies and strategies that aim to reduce and prevent discrimination.
Without attitudinal changes and cultural transformation, the danger of conscious as well as unconscious forms of resistance will continue to prevail in the implementation process and hamper the translation of polices and strategies into the intended outcomes. Moreover, without changes within the entire criminal justice system and wider societal environment, reforming the police's operational culture in terms of procedural rules is also insufficient as the police practices may simply revert to the previous undesirable situation.
As the inappropriately low ratio of women in the police is a perpetuating factor, increasing the number of female officers is part of the solution. However, increasing the intake of female officer trainees will not, by itself, result a in significant transformation unless the impediments to their retention and advancement are removed.
Other helpful tools include robust implementation programs, as well as monitoring and evaluation schemes; specialised structures that particularly deal with the issues of gender in policing; intensive awareness raising and sensitisation programs of managers, as well as both male and female officers; practices that promote balancing work and family life and awards for excellence in policing for women, as well as for excellence in supporting gender mainstreaming in policing.
Tsegaye D. Baffa, Senior Researcher, Peace Missions Programme, ISS Nairobi Office.