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Women in Police Leadership Part 1: Challenges and Barriers

Women in Police Leadership Barriers

The aim of this blog series is to support women in police leadership to advance their UK policing careers through the Federated ranks of Sergeant, Inspector and Chief Inspector; thereby improving the representation of women in formal leadership roles. This will include identifying common hurdles and concerns facing female officers, how these can be overcome, some clear strengths women bring to police leadership, case studies, along with examples of success and what works for achieving promotion. It follows on from my popular blogs on the broader topics of equality, diversity, and inclusion to support your thinking and CPD.

“Ability is sexless.” – John Henry Newman

Although I’m still in the process of writing, here’s the outline of what will be a four-part series of essays:

Maximising Potential: An Introduction to Women in Police Leadership

As a leadership coach and mentor who specialises in supporting police promotion candidates, I see effective leadership skills including coachability, emotional intelligence and empathy being demonstrated in abundance by many female candidates; especially in overcoming challenges that male officers may not face to the same degree. 

For many aspiring women leaders, deciding to go for promotion as a means of career progression is a significant decision in itself. Balancing caring for family and dependents with promotion aspirations is an important consideration. 

“The irresolvable conflict’ that exists between balancing family commitments and a career in policing remains a major issue, leaving those women seeking to balance family and work, less able to display the ‘right’ amount or ‘type’ of commitment and credibility necessary for higher rank.” – Silvestri et al. (2013)

That’s without contemplating additional issues that can impact or deter career progression, for example male-dominated cultures, imbalance of opportunities (whereby most promotion posts are generally advertised for full time roles, which can ‘put off’ aspiring individuals), maternity leave impact upon careers, difficulties in securing flexible working options, and attitudes to part-time working.

UK police forces are becoming more inclusive (e.g. with flexible working patterns), so progress is clearly being made. For example, as shown in the chart above, female officer representation is slowly headed in the right direction. However, recognising the struggles that continue to persist, at a personal level, I find women who navigate and overcome these challenges to achieve promotion(s) very inspiring. So much so, it inspired me to write this dedicated blog series! So, let’s begin by touching upon this core aspect of leadership and career success: Inspiration.


“I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability. The press truck caught up to us… journalists began firing questions, “What are you trying to prove?”, “When are you going to quit?”, “Are you a suffragette?” The guys thought it was a one-off event. But I knew it was a lot more than that.” – K.V. Switzer

Who or what inspires you? It’s a great strengths-based question that I sometimes ask in coaching sessions to help individuals to start talking. I even blogged about the subject, since it is key to the CVF competency, ‘We Deliver, Support and INSPIRE’. I’m someone who feeds off and thrives on inspiration. I look for it and can find inspiration almost everywhere, including life stories, films, music and quotations. You’ll get an indication of this from the quotes peppered throughout the supportive resources I offer for aspiring police promotion candidates. You’ll find more inspiration in my other supportive blogs, free digital guides, and informative YouTube videos.

Katherine Switzer’s experience is an inspiring and powerful true story. I first heard about her before I joined the Royal Marines. That’s a while ago now, but the inspiration I felt on learning about Katherine’s story resonates just as fresh today.

I’m also inspired by many of the conversations I have with aspiring women candidates, trying to arrange one to one support between shifts, whilst balancing wider family responsibilities. I know just how hard it can be to find time to prepare effectively for a promotion selection process. Having someone accessible and knowledgeable to answer questions and provide meaningful support when required can be very insightful. Targeted support in the form of a digital promotion toolkit and Masterclass can also add massive value in raising awareness of what is required, enhancing confidence for the opportunity ahead, while maximising personal potential. It’s a particular support option that works well for many officers, who want to make best use of the time they have, as alluded to here by Gemma:

“Hi Steve, we spoke a few times about the sergeants board (I’m the lady on maternity leave) and I’m pleased to say I passed. Your interview guide got me through the day. Just wanted to say a huge thank you for your help and for your support through the process.”

Challenges, Barriers and Put-Offs for Female Officers

“Society expects women to work like they don’t have children, while raising a family as if they don’t work.” – Unknown

Are things really that different for women aspiring to leadership positions? This section focuses on some of the real (or perceived) barriers to promotion, plus aspects that can make the notion unappealing for women. These are not just barriers to inclusion and progression in leadership positions, which means that for example just 30% of those seeking promotion to Inspector in 2021 were female. They are also issues which can even make women seriously consider leaving policing altogether.

Historically, it took until 1995 when Pauline Clare QPM became Chief Constable of Lancashire Constabulary, for Britain to have representation at all levels of policing. There are now many more senior women leaders in policing, as summarised in the chart below for England & Wales forces; not least with the most senior police officer in the UK being Met Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick. Despite the progress society has made, there are still many ways in which women are prevented from achieving equality of representation at the most senior ranks. This is not just a UK issue, as shown in this recent comprehensive research report from the USA, ‘Women in Policing: Breaking Barriers and Blazing a Path’.

I have encountered and experienced a range of challenges facing aspiring women police leaders. The following provides merely a brief overview of some of the more common broader challenges, barriers, and put-offs to promotion: 

Working Patterns: As alluded to in the quote above, standard working patterns and shifts are not conducive to raising a family. Home Office workforce statistics show that it is female officers who seek and work in flexible / part-time working patterns. In turn, there remains an organisational stigma in having such working arrangements in leadership positions (or forces simply do not cater for it), It may also be harder to build enough strong promotion evidence while working in part-time and/or other flexible arrangements. Both issues are thereby disproportionately hampering women’s career aspirations. Michelle Skeer QPM is Chief Constable of Cumbria Police and President of the British Association of Women in Policing (BAWP). Upon her appointment to lead the organisation, she clearly identified this challenge for women of juggling work and family life in the BAWP ‘Grapevine’ magazine.

Bias (unconscious or otherwise) & Sexism: Banter, bullying and harassment are unfortunately still too common in police workplace, as it is also in workplaces in wider society; after all, the core Peelian Principle states that ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’. Such misogynistic behaviour includes openly sexualised bullying, sexism, and belittlement, and has come to the surface of awareness yet again in the wake of the Sarah Everard murder. For example, see this mainstream report from whistle-blowers about sexist behaviour witnessed within the Met Police.

Practicality: With promotion may come the expectation of reposting away from family commitments, up to a 30-mile radius according to Police Regulations. This can sometimes be a personal price female officers cannot afford to risk or pay, particularly for example as a single parent.

Expectation: Perception or reality (‘as advertised’) that Sergeant, Inspector and Chief Inspector posts must be filled on a full-time basis. This can adversely impact work/life balance, particularly the extra hours (often unpaid) put in at more senior ranks, and so be a disproportionate barrier to women.

Culture & Environment: Where there is a male-dominated leadership team, culture (as also identified by CC Skeer), and/or ‘frat boy’ culture within the force, this can exclude women who do not want to ‘play the game’, navigating through what can feel like ‘a man’s world’. Many women would rather not feel like having to act like ‘one of the lads’ to fit in, fearing that their individualism or natural femininity and strengths may not be embraced or appreciated. Toxic environments are not just exclusively ‘male-on-female’ either; sadly, female officers have reported their aspirations being suppressed or bullying by other women, be it for personal dislike or other reasons.

“In a society where women often feel pressured to tear one another down, our saving grace lies in our willingness to lift one another up.” – Madeleine Albright

Support: Lack of support given (or requested) at work, for personal mentoring or other guidance for CPD. There may also be a lack of support at home, as women juggle work and family life, which can be particularly demoralising on a personal level. Support through pregnancy, maternity leave and subsequent return to work can also be lacking in the sense of encouraging someone’s leadership aspirations, while the formal policies rarely account for such challenges to achieving promotion.

Wellbeing: I would not claim to understand the debilitating effects of conditions such as the menopause or endometriosis. They are however gaining awareness in policing and the working environment generally as the links show. Either way, as examples of conditions uniquely suffered by women, they can be another hurdle to overcome and can understandably have the consequence hampering women’s promotion and career aspirations.

Personal & Psychological: As I will unpack later in this blog series, the ‘authority gap’, confidence, ‘imposter syndrome’, and mindset can all add to the challenge of achieving promotion for women. Also consider the under-diagnosis of neurodiverse conditions in females, and the potential knock-on effects this can have to an individual’s career.

Intersectionality: Having to overcome setbacks across multiple protected characteristics can also have a bearing. Consider for example the experience outlined in this case study of a black female UK police officer.

All of this clearly has a detrimental impact of the aspirations of women in the police service.

These issues, alone or combined, can create ‘lack of appetite’ for leadership roles and a reluctance for women to invest their soul further into progressing their policing career. Ultimately, this adversely affects police legitimacy: Both in terms of women in policing having confidence in their leaders to take robust action, plus the effects that widely publicised cases of unfairness can have upon the public perception of policing and its appeal as a career choice.

The Authority Gap

“Women are in this real double bind. If they’re not confident enough, they’re not going to be respected. They’re not going to be taken seriously, but if they are confident enough, they’re often going to be disliked and it’s terribly hard for women to navigate this very narrow path between the two.” – Mary Ann Sieghart

Does society think women and men are equally suitable to lead? 

This is an important question, one that The Reykjavik Index for Leadership established in 2018 seeks to answer. This index measures perceptions of equality for men and women in leadership. It provides powerful evidence enabling us to better understand where there is prejudice in society’s perceptions of women and men in leadership, across 23 sectors in 10 countries. For the 2020/2021 report, the average Index score for women was 73, significantly short of the target score of 100, which indicates consensus across society that men and women are equally suited for leadership.

Why are women still taken less seriously than men when it comes to leadership?

This is another question, addressed comprehensively by Mary Ann Sieghart in her book ‘The Authority Gap’, about why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it. I would certainly add it to my list of recommended reading for all promotion candidates, to support your police leadership CPD.

The ‘authority gap’ is a measure of how much more seriously we take men than we take women. Sieghart gathered significant data interviewing more than 100 women including holders of high political office, state leaders and CEOs of large companies, basing their anecdotal accounts with research. I enjoyed her book, I found it hard going in some sections, but clearly many of her proposed solutions are clearly intended towards getting more women into leadership positions and to transform attitudes towards authoritative women. Here’s some fascinating and succinct snippets:

“We tend to assume that a man knows what he is talking about until he proves otherwise, whereas for women it’s all too often the other way round. As a result, women tend to be underestimated more.”

“Women tend to be interrupted, talked over more, have to prove their competence more and we often feel uncomfortable when in positions of authority.”

“Tackling the authority gap starts with seeing it for what it is and becoming aware of how we allow it to continue. Ingrained beliefs and stereotypes about masculine leadership often take time to change and are used to make judgements about women at work.” 

“Awareness is important, so noticing if you interrupt women more than men, or if in meetings you listen less attentively is a start. Changing workplace cultures by revisiting the masculine leadership ideal is the best chance we have, to close the authority gap. We also need to see more women in leadership positions to challenge our beliefs and biases.”

In the context of some of these issues and with the CVF Competency ‘We Take Ownership’ in mind, consider the following potential promotion interview question, particularly in relation to diversity and inclusion:

“The police service needs to improve the representation of women in leadership positions. In terms of fostering a culture of ownership and accountability, how will you support this aspiration? What do you believe you can contribute?”

Some of Sieghart’s observations reflect many of my own insights and experiences, which I will cover next time.

In Part 2, we will continue diving into other personal challenges women face in police leadership. In addition, I provide tools to improve confidence, overcome ‘imposter syndrome’, and develop a positive mindset. I hope you’ve found this useful so far and see you in Part 2!

Kind Regards, Steve

If you found this blog helpful, you can hit the ground running with your promotion preparation. Get your personal digital promotion toolkit, attend or download my Police Promotion Masterclass, or contact me to arrange personal coaching support. If you first want to explore completely free content, I have a collection of videos, eGuides, a podcast, plus free blog content both here and via my Police Hour guest articles.

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