Guest Post: Is it Harder for Women in Criminal Justice Careers?

Today’s post is a guest post from Marie Owens.  Marie works in security logistics. In her spare time she teaches a female self-defense course and studies law in Washington state.

When you think of careers in criminal justice, you probably first imagine men in any positions that come to mind. This is understandable: statistics from a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs – Bureau of Justice Statistics show that men outnumber women in all areas of federal law enforcement, in most places making up at least 75 percent of the workforce. Even as standards of equal opportunity employment have infiltrated the profession, there was at most a seven percent increase of female employment in any area of criminal justice in the years between 1998 and 2008. The in most areas the change was closer to four percent, with some departments reporting a lower proportion of female employment. With such a preponderance of men in the workplace, as well as a prevailing cultural stereotype of men dominating criminal justice, it can be difficult for women to successfully make their way in their chosen field even after receiving a criminal justice degree.

There are some challenges that these women face that are universally shared by women in any workplace where they make up the minority: double standards, harassment (sexual or otherwise), and unwarranted negative opinions of their abilities to name a few. Additionally, a lack of attention to women’s biological needs—for instance, failure to provide women with considerations like maternity leave—can also contribute to the hostile working environment. However, the potential problems faced by women go even farther.

According to a study regarding women who work in federal law enforcement conducted by Dr. Susan Keverline, Ph.D. in 2003, weapons and equipment are often not properly sized for female officers. Likewise, being women in a field where physical strength is considered desirable, female officers are pushed especially hard to exceed expectations and feel the constant need to prove themselves to co-workers and establish their credibility. Additionally, these women reported feeling isolated within their work environments, being excluded from the informal networks because they weren’t “one of the boys.” There is also sometimes the problem that families can be unsupportive of the career choice as well, adding an additional dimension of frustration.

These problems can be difficult to fix. For example, 31.8 percent of women in the survey who had been sexually harassed did not report the incident to their supervisors, citing fear of retaliation or being ostracized, or because they thought nothing would be done about the issue. Furthermore, less than half of the women who ended up reporting incidents of sexual harassment said they were satisfied with the outcome.

However, when these same women were asked if they would leave thanks to one or another issue they faced in the workplace, they were quick to say that they would not quit. One interviewee said “When I’m working—actually doing the job that I was hired to do—not being hampered or hindered or having obstacles put in my path—I think to myself, ‘I love my job,’ and that’s why I’m here.” While they may not be able to rely on their agency’s policy, superiors or co-workers for support, the majority of women in the survey had no desire to leave. There are many reasons for this, including adherence to their personal values, the opportunity to continue learning, because they found the work meaningful to them or because they believed that it was making a difference for women who would follow them in their choice of career.

In order to cope with these challenges, female officers often create coping strategies. The survey mentions that these women often develop a sense of humor and a “thick skin” in order to deal with jabs from their male co-workers. Women who are able to draw on support from their families and friends, or create networks with other women in their field. Some women also develop hobbies and interests outside of their work in order to cope.

Ultimately it is important for these women to continue with their work, and not just for their own sake. Their presence at the scene of a crime, as bureaucrats or as lawyers helps to destroy the long held stereotypes that women cannot do these jobs. Moreover, in certain cases having a woman on duty can be a boon to an investigation, like collecting information from an abused or raped woman whose experience makes her uncomfortable in the presence of men.

Regardless, there is no proof that female law enforcers are any less capable than men, and thanks to the challenges posed by their work environment they have proven themselves to be capable above and beyond the call of duty. For these reasons, a woman considering a masters in criminal justice and a criminal justice career should not be afraid of the additional hardships, but instead she should go after what she wants to do secure in the knowledge that other women have faced the same challenges and succeeded in spite of them. Eventually, we can reach a point where such reassurances won’t be necessary.

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