WOMEN IN LAW ENFORCEMENT
Recognizing Unique Aspects of Nurturing Female Wellness
Author: Theresa Adams-Hydar
For about the last decade, there has been a big push to increase the number of women among the rank and file of law enforcement. According to the most recent Bureau of Justice statistics, women accounted for about 13 % of the full-time law enforcement workforce in 2013, which is up from 8% in 1987. Sadly, this is only a 4% increase over the course of 26 years and is even lower than the all-time high of 14.3% in 1999. Despite the gains women have made in policing since joining their male counterparts in the field in the 70’s, the twenty-first century has seen something akin to a plateau for overall numbers and retention. According to Val Van Brocklin, a federal prosecutor and contributor to PoliceOne.com, the yearly gain of female police officers has been less than half of 1 percent since 1971. Many sociologists and experts have studied this trend and come up with a myriad of reasons for the stall in numbers, such as biased recruiting, the lack of desire to balance work and home life and even an overall disinterest in law enforcement by younger generations of women. This may account for why women are not joining the ranks, but why are they leaving; especially when they are
in demand more than ever?
In the last twenty years research has shown that women use a style of policing that relies less on physical strength and deployment of force and more on communication and de-escalation of scenes. With this type of finding, one would assume law enforcement agencies would be clamoring to hire and retain qualified females. Unfortunately, many agencies are missing the boat in this area, even though it could be easily remedied with small tweaks to those agencies who have already established some sort of wellness program. The tweak- they need to make sure they are not putting square pegs in round holes as it pertains to identifying appropriate approaches to wellness for men and women. Just as women police differently from men in some respects, they are also likely to deal with workplace stress, worries and conflicts differently. Therefore, a one-size fits all wellness approach will not work. A law enforcement agency which understands these differences and makes appropriate changes in their Employee Wellness Program, will most likely see an increase in the hiring, advancement and retention of their female officers. In turn, these agencies will reap benefits in years to come with respect to a healthy, balanced and diverse workforce as well as improved community relations.
Ask any law enforcement professional why they selected their profession and they will respond with something akin to, “I wanted to serve my community and help people.” This calling is no different between men and women. Likewise, workplace stress does not discriminate, as both men and women are expected to deal with death, tragedy and conflict day after day; year after year. As a result, police officers are expected to keep their emotions in check while out in the field, regardless of their own feelings or reactions to the scene in front of them. Often, these emotions are never really dealt with due to lack of time as officers respond from call to call. Additionally, there is exists a self-imposed concept that acknowledging emotion is not acceptable in the police culture and officers learn to mask their feelings to their own detriment.
According to an American Psychological Association (APA) study, women are more likely than men (28% vs 20%) to report having a great deal of stress and about half of those surveyed (49%) indicated their stress level was increasing as compared to 39% of men. Additionally, women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress like headaches (41% vs 30%), feeling the desire to cry (44% vs 15%) and having an upset stomach or indigestion (32% vs 21%). The study confirmed that married women report higher levels of stress than single women and married women report feeling like they are not readily able to address the stress unlike their single counterparts.
These APA findings are also supported by the science of hormones. Men are more likely to respond to stress by producing adrenaline and cortisol which can create the flight or fight response, which is a well- known concept in law enforcement. Women also produce adrenaline and cortisol in moments of stress, but they also produce oxytocin, a chemical that can produce bonding and affection for others. As noted in a Healthgrade article by Lorna Collier, “women are more apt to react to stress with a ‘tend and befriend’ response, seeking to protect others in their lives and reaching out for social connection and support.” This response is most likely the reason why women officers are less apt to use force than their male counterpart. It is also explains the likelihood of women to handle investigations related to domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault with a softer approach which tends to be better received by victims.
Law enforcement agencies need to recognize this “tend and befriend” approach in policing as a common go-to for females. Obviously, a female must recognize when she needs to engage in physical force, to protect her life, her partner’s and the community she serves. There is no argument that all officers, man and women, must be physically fit and meet all physical training requirements in order to do their job safely. This is not a justification to alter physical requirements for females in law enforcement. it is a call to action for law enforcement agencies to acknowledge and incorporate the biological differences of men and women in the field and the benefits these differences bring to modern day policing.
Unfortunately, there are times when a male partner may question the decision of his female counterpart due to lack of understanding of the different thought processes. It is commonplace for females in law enforcement to try to measure up to their male counterpart within a historically male dominated society. Some women may question their own decisions and place a great deal of stress on themselves in order to fit into this society, which only compounds the daily stress of policing.
Law enforcement agencies should include basic training on the applicable biological differences and policing methods of men and women. Even the slightest awareness of these differences would help create a more effective workforce. Officers spend a great deal of time getting to know the mindset of criminals to be more effective in the field. It is only logical that officers should understand each other and recognize different perspectives in order to achieve this same level of efficacy as well as increased officer safety. Supervisors should also recognize these differences and conduct debriefings of critical events accordingly. For example, a female officer with small children may deal with a radio call of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome very differently than a young male with no children. Training and extended counseling should be made available to all officers who may continue to struggle with inadequacies or work-related stress and it is important any follow-up addresses these obvious differences.
As more agencies recognize and give voice to these differences, and promote them as strengths rather than weaknesses, many of the preconceived notions of policing will disappear. An agency which creates an internal environment of awareness, diversity and support is far more attractive to a female officer, where she feels her skillset is acknowledged and appreciated.
Studies have shown that chronic stress may take a greater toll on the physical health of women compared to men. As noted earlier, the human body produces cortisol which is a positive thing for additional energy when engaged in fight or flight situations. However, that same cortisone release may have a negative impact on other parts of the body and more so on women and their hormonal system. Some of these long-term health problems include reduced sex drive, irregular menstrual cycles, acne breakouts, hair loss, poor digestion, depression, insomnia, weight gain, decreased fertility and increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
The APA study confirmed men are far more likely than women to deal with stress by playing sports or engaging in some sort of physical activity (16% vs 4%). Most women opted for more sedentary activities like reading or spending time with a friend. Conversely, women are more likely to eat as a way of managing stress (31% vs 21%) and many admitted to overeating and eating unhealthy foods. As a result, women are more likely to be overweight, out of shape and lacking in energy, which does not bode well for the physically demanding job of police work. To compound issues, many women state they are unable to find time to exercise or plan healthy meals due to balancing the needs of children, home responsibilities and work; which starts a vicious cycle of stress.
Law enforcement agencies could help combat this vicious cycle and improve the physical wellness of women by incorporating and encouraging a physical fitness and nutrition regime. Women are more apt to work out if they are encouraged and have guidance. Partnering with a local gym or bringing in personal trainers to get women (and of course men) started on an appropriate diet and exercise routine would be the first step to improved physical wellness. Additionally, if women are allowed to exercise on duty, even a couple of hours a week, they would be able to work it into their busy schedules without finding excuses at home to avoid it. Even two hours a week helps develop positive habits which will spill over into other areas of their life and work as an additional stress reliever. Some more creative tweaks would be the creation of friendly competitions for weight loss or training for 5k races as a group. Since women are more prone to group socialization this would be an ideal program.
Obviously, any exercise and nutrition program would have to be approved by each individual agency and it is understood many agencies are afraid to adopt them due to unforeseen liability, related to injury. If this is the case with an agency, it is incumbent upon the supervisors to educate their staff on the importance of proper exercise and nutrition and highly encourage them to work out at home. A motivated supervisor or law enforcement leader could coordinate voluntary walks, runs or yoga sessions off duty, which encourages physical fitness as well as socialization. Even though the workouts are not on duty, it will still help develop a positive, supportive and healthy culture within the agency; which is highly attractive to female officers.
Occupational Wellness can be viewed from a couple of perspectives. The most obvious one includes the lawful requirement for a law enforcement agency to provide a safe working environment for all employees. This usually includes the policies regarding handling of safety equipment, exposure to hazardous chemicals, treatment and prevention of on duty injuries and a litany of other health and safety standards. Most agencies cover this area fairly well, and where they may falter, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) usually fills the gap.
The area of occupational wellness that is often overlooked is the placement and maintenance of an employee in an occupational environment adapted to his or her physiological and psychological capabilities. In other words, law enforcement agencies must make sure they are investing in the emotional and physical wellness of their staff as well as:
Make a work environment conducive to personal growth and succession planning.
Maintain an environment with high morale and productivity.
Recognize the impacts of policing on the entire family as well as the employee.
One of the common complaints of many women in law enforcement is the lack of support and mentoring over the course of their career. Unfortunately, the failure to mentor female leaders is an oversight by both male and female leaders. Some men may feel unequipped or uncomfortable about mentoring a female and the only time they partner up with them may be during their initial training. In some cases, females also feel they lack networking opportunities after hours with their male counterparts because of family responsibilities. This also prevents them from bonding with their male partners and developing relationships which may benefit them in the workplace. Females may fail to mentor other females due to jealousy and internal competition. Since their overall numbers are small, women often compete for the same positions and are not always supportive of each other as a result. In the book Police Women: Life with the Badge, the authors interview several female officers throughout the United States and ask them about their relationship with other females. Many stated they received little support from high ranking females due to jealousy. They indicated there was not an “old boy network” for females like there was for males. Regardless of why, the lack of mentorship and development of females in the ranks creates low morale and is a lack of investment in vital personnel.
The obvious tweak for occupational wellness is to ensure a strong mentoring program is developed and continually monitored for success. Investment in the personal growth and advancement of employees is the best way to set up people and the agency for success. Employees who feel supported and empowered are far more creative, loyal and efficient. Special attention must be given to the mentoring of women at all levels. Likewise, women at all ranks need to learn how to be supportive of one another rather than focus on their own advancement.
In addition to a strong mentoring program, law enforcement agencies need to make sure wellness programs extend to the family members of officers as well. The same stress which directly impacts officers will inevitably have an indirect impact on that officer’s family. Often times, women in law enforcement are also the caretaker of children at home and must balance both stressful responsibilities. If a woman feels things are good at home, she can focus on her job with fewer distractions, which increased productivity and decreases accidents. Conversely, if a woman feels respected and supported in the work place she can focus on and enjoy her children and/or spouse and avoid stress. Supervisors need to be trained to recognize when the life-work balance is skewed and address any concerns in a timely manner. Those who are working too many hours need to be forced to take time off or at least ensure they are not working past the point of maintaining a safe and healthy environment. This will keep employees, especially women from becoming mired in the vicious cycle of stress.
Police officers are an invaluable resource and it is imperative they are kept healthy in order to keep the community safe. Women, with their unique skill sets bring more diversity, compassion and capability to an already noble profession. However, sometimes this noble profession can take a toll on an officer’s wellness and cause them to break. A broken officer is no good to society or themselves. A female officer cannot nurture, befriend and tend her community or her family if she is broken and ignoring the signs for fear of being labeled as weak. Unfortunately, the broken female officer will be forced to choose between work, family and more often than not work is the first thing to go. A law enforcement agency which identifies the unique attributes women bring to law enforcement and makes a commitment to enhance the emotional, physical and occupational wellness of its female employees will be able to recruit, retain and promote for years to come.
American Psychological Association. 2017. Gender and Stress. Retrieved from apa.org.
Collier, Lorna. 2018. How Men and Women Deal with Stress. Healthgrades Retrieved from HealthgradesINC.com
Gregoire, Carolyn. December 22, 2014. Ten Ways Stress Affects Women’s Health. HuffPost Retrieved from huffingtonpost.com.
Harrington, Penny and Moore, Margaret. Date Unknown. National Center for Women and Policing. Retrieved from Womanandpolicing.com.
Sangberg, Elizabeth Lang; Sole, Corina Brito; Luna Morrozoff Andrea and McFadden, Shannon. September 2010. A Guide to Occupational Health and Safety for Law Enforcement. Executives Bureau of Justice PERF. Retrieved from policeforum.org
Van Brocklin,Val. October 23, 2013. Cop Gumbo Why Aren’t There More Women in Policework? Retrieved from PoliceOne.com.
Wells, Sandra and Sowers, Betty Alt. 2005. Police Women: Life with the Badge. Greenwood Publishing Group
Wilson, Dr. Arlether Ann. 2016. Female Police Officers’ Perceptions and Experiences with Marginalization: A Phenomenological Study.Walden University Scholar Works. Retrieved from scholarworksWaldenu.edu.
About The Author:
Theresa Hydar is a Captain with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. During her 23 year career, she has worked a variety of positions including, Detentions, Patrol, Community Oriented Policing, Area Investigations, Gang Investigations, Personnel and Internal Affairs. In her current assignment, Theresa commands the department’s Special Investigations Division, which is responsible for Criminal Intelligence, Narcotics, Human Trafficking and Gang Investigations. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Spanish and a Master’s Degree in Organizational Management. She also serves as an instructor at the Sheriff’ POST Supervisor Course. She is married with two children and resides in northern San Diego County.
BACK TO MAGAZINE...