Then and Now

One of the things any organization has to do is purge old documents.  The down side of such a task is constant dust and sneezing.  The up side is learning little pieces of history.  Insight into people I knew when they were young and information about people that I had only heard of.  One document I came across was a transcript of the very first ICWIFLE conference in 1984.  As I read it, I realized that as much as things have changed for women, some things are still the same or change slowly.

In that conference, a woman who later became my mentor spoke about the importance of taking the road less traveled.  The road less traveled was from a Robert Frost poem and she lived her live that way, always taking the road less traveled.  That road was more fun, more interesting, more demanding and tested you.  Taking that road would make the difference in your life.  I recently attended a panel on “Having it All.”  Each of the panelists spoke about taking chances and how taking a chance changed their lives. 

In 1971, women made up only 1.4 percent of all police officers.  On the federal side the first women were being hired, so the percentage of female law enforcement officers was even smaller. 

When I started in 1977, skirts were still issued and women’s pants had no pockets.  Our cute little policewomen hats had terrible accidents making them un-wearable.  The Captain told us “You will just have to wear a man’s hat” and we hung our heads in shame as we accepted our punishment - men’s police hats.  After that success, we went for the men’s pants and shirts.  We certainly did not look good, but we had pockets and function.  Years later, companies began to make women’s gun belts.  Today, the issue is now body armor fit.  While it is also an issue for men, it is greater for women. 

In 1985, Penny Harrington became the first female police chief in the country. Former police captain Dorothy Schulz concludes that women make up slightly more than 1 percent (about 200 or so) of this nation's police chiefs and sheriffs. The first female Special Agent in Charge was in 1987.  Today women lead several major agencies.

In 1991, ICWIFLE celebrated 20 years of Women in Federal Law Enforcement.  The topics of that training included a panel of some of the first women in federal law enforcement, stress management, leadership, diversity’s impact on law enforcement, and balancing your life.  The agencies also profiled some of their women.  DEA highlighted the work of a young group supervisor. She later became DEA’s first Special Agent in Charge, and today she is the Administrator of DEA. 

A recent article in Police Chief Magazine stated there are close to 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States at all levels of government, which employ nearly 800,000 full-time law enforcement officers.  Today policewomen account for more than 13% of police officers, and they serve in all types and sizes of police agencies, in all ranks, in all kinds of work assignments, and in all parts of the country.  For the federal agencies, the percentages have not exceeded 14-16%.  Since 1971, the annual rate of gain has been less than half of 1 percent per year. IACP estimates there are a little more than 100,000 female police officers in the United States.

In 2011/2012 we celebrated 40 years (two generations) of women in federal law enforcement.  While it appears that the incidence of sexual harassment and discrimination has decreased, a recent Texas A&M (June 2011) study on Women in Federal Law Enforcement found that 20% of non-supervisory and 21% of supervisory officers experienced discrimination, and 29% of each category experienced sexual harassment.  Other research (Keverline 2003) indicates that more than half do not report it for fear of reprisal.

Today many agencies still do not have pregnancy policies and many people do not want their agency involved in their pregnancy decisions.  Operating on a case-by-case basis may be fine, but there are no guarantees against a bad supervisor.  Policy helps to protect the employee and the agency from poor or discriminatory decisions made by supervisors and managers. 

For the past forty years, we have been talking about the importance of mentoring, but there are few formal programs and the expense of establishing them may take away from other valuable training.  It could be as a profession we need to rethink the formal and work towards establishing cultures of sponsorship and advocacy.

Law Enforcement itself has changed over the past 40 years. For example, since the first women were hired in 1971, agencies such as DEA (1973) and the Inspector Generals (1978) were created, the Federal Air Marshals (2001) were greatly expanded, and ever increasingly complex statutes such as money laundering and terrorism have been passed. 

Along with growth of agencies and statutes, there is an ever-increasing technology used by criminal organizations making the job law enforcement a job that has become more mental than physical.  Technology has made the job easier, but it has also made life more difficult.  There was a time when there were no cell phones and pagers.  We actually went out on the streets with quarters for the pay phones.  When you went on vacation you were on vacation. Constant connectivity has lead managers to expect employees to answer immediately with answers to all the questions.  Staff meetings are conducted with people half listening and reading blackberries or iPhones.  Instead of experiencing physical exhaustion, people becoming mentally depleted.  This constant connectivity may make it easier to keep track of the kids but it also makes harder to balance work and life. 

Despite the changes, despite the progress over the forty years some things remain a constant and will probably be the same subjects we will talk about forty years from now; balancing career and family, learning to take chances or taking the path less traveled, maintaining diversity, and helping those coming up behind achieve more than we could in our careers.

Women in Federal Law Enforcement Inc. ( is a 501(c)(6) tax-exempt organization chartered in June 1999 as an outgrowth of an interagency committee sponsored by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Treasury. The WIFLE Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, was incorporated in March 2006. Both organizations work to promote the value that women bring to the law enforcement profession and address the reasons why women remain underrepresented in sworn law enforcement positions.

The WIFLE organizations advocate the recruitment, retention and promotion of women in federal law enforcement occupations as a means to enhance the efficacy of law enforcement operations.


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