March 18, 2023

How do we get more women in police leadership positions?


PERF members,

As of 2020, only 11 percent of first-line supervisors, 9 percent of intermediate supervisors, and 4 percent of chiefs were female. I find the lack of women in leadership roles disheartening, and on Monday PERF published a new report challenging agencies to improve.

The report identifies a number of reasons why those numbers may be so low. Too few women enter the profession in the first place, though the percentage of women serving as officers is higher than the percentage in leadership roles. Once women are in the profession, the promotional process can present barriers to career advancement. And some aspects of agency culture can impede women as they try to rise through the ranks.

Fortunately, there are steps agencies can take to improve female representation in the leadership ranks. The report concludes with ten actions agencies can take to increase leadership opportunities for women. Police departments and sheriffs’ offices should make every effort to address the challenges I just mentioned by working to hire more women at the recruit level and foster a culture in which all women feel included, valued, respected, and equal. Agencies should create policies and resources to support all employees who are balancing work and family obligations, and they should ensure women have equal opportunities to join specialized units and participate in trainings and career development opportunities.

I asked two of PERF’s long-time executive search staffers, Rebecca Neuburger and Charlotte Lansinger, for their thoughts on this subject. They have more than 50 years of combined experience working with candidates in the executive search process. Their views reflect their discussions with candidates and their observations about how mayors, city managers, and other decision-makers select police leaders. They see the challenges women face and offer some insight on what it might take to get more women into police leadership positions.

Charlotte presenting at the 2022 PERF Annual Meeting

Charlotte Lansinger: The report identifies a number of impediments women face when seeking a higher rank in policing, including the challenge of balancing childcare responsibilities and shift work. It highlights a deterrent I’ve sensed for many years: Women tend to have less confidence in their ability to aspire to higher ranks than their male counterparts. Women tend to set goals that must be achieved, such as earning a master’s degree, attending an executive development course, or working a specific assignment, before they feel confident taking that next step. Whether they are taking a promotional exam or seeking a police chief position, women seem to feel the need to overachieve in order to be competitive. Conversely, men tend to have inherent confidence in their abilities.

During the interview process, we repeatedly see gender bias when implicit biases about gender norms become part of the assessment. During an interview, there’s less of a focus on a candidate’s specific skills and experiences, because we’re aware of those before the interview. There’s more of a focus on “soft” skills, such as communication style, leadership ability, and command presence. Those qualities can be interpreted differently depending on a candidate’s gender. For instance, smiling too much or too little can be interpreted differently depending on whether the candidate is a man or a woman, and interviewers may come to different judgements about that person’s leadership ability. Interviewers might make other interpretations based on a candidate’s tone of voice or body language. Gender biases sometimes mean women are perceived as aggressive or bossy, when their male counterparts who display similar behaviors are perceived differently.

People should be more cognizant of their own implicit biases when working to fairly assess men and women in the interview process.

There’s also a need for female role models. Women need to see other women who are able to balance the many aspects of leadership to achieve success in the command levels of policing.

I would recommend those in a position to mentor and encourage employees to understand these dynamics. Boost women’s confidence in themselves, and help them see themselves advancing successfully as they take on greater responsibilities.

Rebecca shared similar sentiments about the importance of self-confidence.

Rebecca at the 2022 IACP Conference 

Rebecca Neuburger: I think the shadow of a doubt that women face in everything turns them off from applying for police chief jobs, and from policing in general. They know they have to dance an impossible dance to get the support they need to be successful. They face sexism and implicit bias from bosses, cops, and the community.

Men need to redefine “support.” Women need to work extra to overcome doubt, and those in support need to accept that this doubt is real. Then they need to work to insulate women serving as chiefs and in other leadership roles from that doubt so those leaders can do their jobs.

And when evaluating a woman – in any situation, for anything – everyone doing the evaluating needs to explicitly ask themselves, “If this were a man, would I interpret this person and their presence, mannerisms, answers, and ideas any differently?”

I’d like to thank Charlotte and Rebecca for sharing their thoughts, and I want to echo their emphasis on mentorship. I’ve known many police chiefs and every single one, male or female, has had mentors. Those mentors brought the future chiefs to meetings and conferences, shared insights, and gave career guidance. Mentors made sure the future chiefs were offered a range of assignments that would prepare them to lead an agency. Nearly all chiefs have served as district commanders, which prepares them to manage staffing needs, personnel issues, interacting with the media, and engaging with the community. In addition, chiefs gain valuable experience serving in higher levels in patrol, administration, internal affairs, and investigations.

Too often those mentorship opportunities aren’t offered to women. If we’re going to increase the number of women in police executive roles, existing chiefs need to push themselves to identify and mentor the next generation of female leaders.

I hope you all have a chance to read the report, particularly the ten action items, because this is an area where policing needs to make progress.

Finally, I want to thank the Motorola Solutions Foundation, which provided support for this report and the 44 others we’ve published as part of the Critical Issues in Policing series.