Women in Policing: The Assumption of Gender Difference

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Women in Policing: The Assumption of Gender Difference
Working Paper # 2010-02 October 2010

Michelle Comeau Center for Public Safety Initiatives Rochester Institute of Technology mjc4339@rit.edu John Klofas Center for Public Safety Initiatives Rochester Institute of Technology 585-475-2423 John.Klofas@rit.edu


Abstract A primary argument for the introduction of women into policing is the belief that women bring to the field gender-unique skills and abilities. This argument of “special competencies” has shaped the way women have worked in the field for the last one hundred and seventy years. This paper, the second in the Women in Policing series, examines the assumption of gender difference, the impact of sex role theory on policing, found differences, and the similarities between men and women on patrol. The paper concludes by acknowledging that, while there are inevitably some differences between genders, these differences are not nearly as pronounced as is generally assumed.


In 1910 Alice Stebbins Wells was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department – effectively becoming the first female officer in the United States – after she successfully petitioned that women were a necessity in policing. The basis of her argument lied in the notion that female officers would bring to the field special competencies that would allow them to handle female- and juvenile-related crimes more effectively than male officers (Garcia, 2003; Grennan, 2000; Price & Gavin, 1981; Lehtinen, 1976). Now, just over a century later, Well’s argument remains one of the primary reasons why women are considered important to law enforcement (Sklansky, 2006). The belief in gender-unique strengths and weaknesses – competencies – is common; traits are thought to be innate or obtained through socialization and are largely seen as gender-specific (Sklansky, 2006). For example, women are thought to be more communicative, nurturing, and empathetic, and less aggressive then men (Rabe-Hemp, 2008a; Rabe-Hemp, 2008b; Garcia, 2003; Lonsway, 2003). Throughout the history of law enforcement, special competencies have operated as a double-edged sword. They have done much to stymie the full integration of women into the field. Prior to 1973, female officers were employed in Womens’ Bureaus and even after the dissolution of these bureaus, women continued to be disproportionately tasked with handling juvenile- and female-related victims and offenders, and domestic and sexual assault (RabeHemp, 2008a; Rabe-Hemp, 2008b; Garcia, 2003; Grant, 2000; Price & Gavin, 1981). Conversely, special competencies have also been one of the primary reasons for the introduction and proliferation of women in the field. As the community-oriented policing model – a model that, arguably, supports the traits believed to be innately held by women – was adopted and spread throughout the nineteen eighties and nineties, female representation increased dramatically (Rabe-Hemp, 2008a; Rabe-Hemp, 2008b; Garcia, 2003). Their assumed


hesitancy to engage in violence led to what were at the time – though later found to be factual – claims that women would be less likely to engage in excessive force or be the subjects of citizen complaints (Rabe-Hemp, 2008b; Garcia, 2003; Lonsway, 2003). In many ways women have been presented as catalysts within the field, their special competencies – coupled with their gender – believed to alter the nature of the organization to its very core in both definition and function (Sklansky, 2006; Grant, 2000). Sex Role Theory For much of history special competencies were believed to be obtained biologically: men and women behaved in different ways as they were born different. Only recently has the adoption of traits and behaviors been examined as a byproduct of socialization (Garcia, 2003). Sex Role Theory – the belief that children are raised to acquire divergent traits based on their gender – sets out to explain the adoption of traits by men and...
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