Dr Kim Peters is interested in the role that communication and emotion plays in the structure of society, leadership effectiveness and collective action

Social, Environmental and Organisational research group

Using Fit to Accelerate Women’s Rise to the Top of Policing

Kim Peters, Michelle Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam

Women remain a minority among those in positions of power in organisations, and the police service is no exception. According to the Home Office, in 2008 only 13 percent of police officers at Superintendent rank or above in England and Wales were women. Although this figure is an improvement (in 1998 only 4 percent of these police officers were women), at the current rate it would be another 25 years before we could expect to see equal numbers of men and women at the top of policing.

If we want to see this happen sooner, what can we do? Previously, most researchers would have suggested that the police service examine the barriers and subtle forms of discrimination that contribute to the ‘glass ceiling’ that prevents women from climbing the policing career ladder. However, more recently, some researchers have suggested that the key to increasing women’s representation is increasing their ambition to rise to the top. This suggestion is based on the finding that women tend to express lower career ambition than their male colleagues, and as a consequence are more likely to opt out of their careers (either by stepping off the career ladder or by leaving their job entirely).

For instance, Kevin Gaston and Jackie Alexander at the University of Manchester showed that among PCs with three years experience in the UK police service, males were almost twice as likely as females to be aiming for promotion to sergeant. Among those who were eligible, males were about three times as likely as females to actually apply for promotion. What is most interesting, however, is that these gender differences only emerge over time: among new recruits, males and females were equally ambitious to climb the policing career ladder. This suggests that some aspect of women’s experiences in their first few years in the police service is undermining their career ambition.  

Research that we are conducting at the University of Exeter suggests that what may be undermining women’s career ambition is their feeling that they do not fit in with top members of the police service. In particular, our research with 70 European policewomen has shown that these women perceive that they do not fit in with senior police officers because they feel that their own attributes, skills and abilities are more feminine and less masculine than those of the typical senior police officer. This perception is a straightforward consequence of the fact that the majority of top members of the police service are men, and when new recruits look up the career ladder, women are much less likely than their male colleagues to see people like themselves – with the same attributes, skills and abilities.

Importantly, the more the policewomen felt that they did not fit in with senior police officers, the lower their levels of career ambition and the greater their desire to exit the police service altogether. Although our research is still in its early stages, what our findings seem to show is that people will choose to direct their ambition where they feel it is most likely to reap rewards. Specifically, if policewomen perceive that they do not have the attributes, skills and abilities that are required to get to the top, they are likely to direct their ambition outside of the police service, and to subsequently opt-out of their careers.

What this work suggests is that the secret to increasing the representation of women at the top of policing lies in changing their perceptions that they fit in with leaders and hence have what it takes to succeed. We are currently collaborating with the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary to investigate ways in which these perceptions can be changed, and measuring their impact on women’s (and men’s) ambition to succeed in policing.

Our research is based on collaborative exchanges with members of industry, so we welcome inquiries from anyone interested in learning more about our work, or who would be interested in becoming involved in our research on k.o.peters@exeter.ac.uk or m.ryan@exeter.ac.uk.

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