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Women in Criminal Justice & Law Enforcement

Whether you’ve always wanted to work in law enforcement or you’re considering it for the first time, learn about the impact of women in policing, understand the positive outcomes of increased diversity, and take away expert advice on getting started and breaking the brass ceiling for good.

Author: Shannon Lee
Editor: STEPS Staff
Reviewer: Meghan Sacks

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It’s no secret that men outnumber women in law enforcement. In 2016, women made up more than 50% of the U.S. population, but less than 13% of most police departments. And these numbers don’t reflect a lack of desire to work in law enforcement and criminal justice, but a brass ceiling that many women face when climbing the department ladder. In 2013, only one-in-ten supervisors or managers — and just 3% of police chiefs — was female.

Women continue to work to shatter the brass ceiling that stands in their way. They are increasingly recognized for the unique competencies they bring to the table, such as non-violent conflict resolution and lower percentages of excessive force complaints. That’s great news for young women interested in becoming officers, sheriffs, detectives, police chiefs, and more. Keep reading to learn why we need more women in law enforcement and criminal justice roles, and to gather the tools and expert advice you need to start your journey.

Why We Need Women in Law Enforcement

Aside from the need to diversify the law enforcement workforce, there are several important reasons departments should put considerable effort into recruiting female officers. Evidence shows that women have a “profound impact on the culture of policing.” This includes everything from being skilled at using communication to help diffuse potentially violent situations to being less likely to physically injure detained persons. Women bring their own set of valuable competencies to a traditionally male-dominated culture, as well as the top-notch leadership skills required to spread those competencies through the ranks with gradual change in law enforcement culture. Here are just a few of the ways women are having a profound and positive impact on law enforcement practices.

Less Likely to Use Excessive Force

Numerous studies have found that women are much more likely to use effective communication techniques, and rarely use excessive or deadly force, as compared to their male counterparts. A 2017 survey found that only 11% of female officers had fired their weapon while on duty, compared to 30% of male officers. Female officers also tended to believe that courtesy was more effective than aggression in dealing with tense situations. Another study found that female officers were 27% less likely than their male counterparts to use any sort of threats or other controlling behaviors.

Conflict Resolution Skills

Women are often known as the peacemakers in tense situations, and the same can be said for female police officers when confronted with a situation that could escalate into violence. A study out of Canada found that female officers demonstrated more concern, patience, and understanding than male officers when it came to issues of domestic violence. The ability to reason with a suspect or make someone in a tense situation feel heard is a trait females often bring to the table which can improve not only their department overall, but the general well-being of the community as well.

Ability to Work with Special Victims

Women have a unique ability to work with victims of rape and domestic violence. Research has found that women are more likely to report domestic violence if the responding officer is a woman and those female officers are also much more likely to take the situation seriously and follow up, which can help prevent repeated violence. The United Nations has found that across the world, violence against women and children has decreased in areas where there is a strong female police presence.

Improvement of Law Enforcement Culture

Changing the “good old boy” culture into something more conducive to inclusivity for all genders is something women can push for as more are hired and prove their mettle. In fact, women in law enforcement positions can easily prove themselves so capable that it leads to changes in selection, training, recruitment, and retention in the wider law enforcement world. This can improve community reputation, save money for departments, and lead to positive changes in the requirements for both women and men.

Advice for Pursuing a Law Enforcement Career as a Female

It’s clear that women face unique challenges through their journey in law enforcement. That’s why it’s important to listen to advice from seasoned professionals as you move into the field. It can help you understand what you might face – and more importantly, how to respond appropriately. Let’s look at advice and tips for female students on the road to their new career in law enforcement.


Decide early on where you want to work

Working at a small town’s sheriff’s office will have different requirements than working for a federal law enforcement agency. This can affect what opportunities you can expect for advancement, as well as what degree you’ll need to earn and any additional training you’ll have to obtain.


Do your research

Not all law enforcement agencies are the same with respect to how women are treated, with some agencies having more issues with discrimination than others. Do women play a prominent role as officers or management in a particular department or agency? You could request a ride-along, where you’ll have a great opportunity to get a feel of the agency’s culture and what you can expect as a female officer.


Take care with your personal histor

Law enforcement jobs can be competitive. Future employers will look at your past with a background and criminal record check. They might even do a search of your credit history and social media presence. Do everything you can to make these parts of your life as presentable as possible.


Get involved in the community

This is especially true for those seeking employment in a specific city or town. Getting involved in the area where you may potentially work allows you to demonstrate genuine interest in a particular position as well as establish connections with potentially influential individuals or organizations.


Work hard to improve your physical fitness

Fair or not, women will be perceived as physically weaker than their male law enforcement counterparts. Even if you’re lucky enough to not have any male colleagues who think this way, a potential criminal might still make this assumption. Whether it’s a fellow officer or suspect who questions your physical ability, you need to be ready to show them you are more than capable of handling the physical rigors of your profession.

Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Careers for Women

Women have the ability to excel in criminal justice and law enforcement careers and there are many unique paths that could benefit from greater female representation. Here are a few of the directions a woman can take when she moves into the law enforcement field.

Ultimately, the job of a police officer is to protect lives and property. That goal can lead to several duties, including regular patrols in a community, responding to emergency calls, looking for signs of criminal activity, and staying engaged and observant with the community at large. Some might work in a specialized area, such as narcotics or traffic violations. Today women make up roughly 13% of the police force, but that number is growing and departments need more women to bring their communication and reasoning skills to the job.

Average Salary


Education Requirements

High school diploma at minimum, though many departments require an associate or bachelor’s degree

Job Outlook

5% job growth from 2018 to 2028

Detectives specialize in investigation of crimes and collection of evidence for criminal cases. This can include conducting searches, examining records of all kinds, conducting interviews, observing suspects or areas where suspects might be located, and participating in raids and arrests. They often specialize in one particular area, such as fraud or homicide. Female detectives can bring several advantages to the table, such as the ability to handle suspects with more empathy, helping to get more information during interviews.

Average Salary


Education Requirements

High school diploma at minimum, though many departments require an associate or bachelor’s degree

Job Outlook

5% job growth from 2018 to 2028

These professionals work to uncover information on crimes, missing persons, legal matters, and the like. They often collect evidence, conduct surveillance, gather information, search through public and government records for clues to whereabouts of individuals or financial information, look at criminal histories, and more. Those with great attention to detail and an ability to think outside the box could do well in this profession.

Average Salary


Education Requirements

High school diploma at minimum, though some employers require an associate or bachelor’s degree. Licensing is required in some states.

Job Outlook

8% job growth from 2018 to 2028

Forensic science technicians gather and analyze evidence from crime scenes. While most forensic science technicians will focus on either gathering evidence from a crime scene or analyzing it back at a crime laboratory, some will work in both areas. To succeed in this occupation, an individual must have keen observation and problem-solving skills.

Average Salary


Education Requirements

A bachelor’s degree, although on-the-job training might also be necessary after hiring

Job Outlook

14% job growth from 2018 to 2028

These professionals develop protocols and plans to help first responders and government officials effectively handle emergencies. They are responsible for coordinating the response once an emergency hits. Women are well-suited for this career given the need for excellent communication, leadership, and interpersonal skills. An emergency management director must be able to get individuals from various occupations to communicate effectively and cooperate with each other, sometimes in a very time-sensitive situation.

Average Salary


Education Requirements

A bachelor’s degree plus some experience in emergency management or a similar field. However, for some jobs, extensive experience on emergency management teams might be enough.

Job Outlook

5% job growth from 2018 to 2028

Insight from the Expert


Meghan Sacks

Meghan Sacks, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Criminology Program Director at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She teaches classes on Women and Crime, Serial Killers, and Crime Policy. She also serves as the co-host of the Women & Crime Podcast. Her research interests include bail reform, plea bargaining, sentencing policy and corrections. Prior to her academic career, Meghan served as a United States Probation Officer in the Southern District of New York.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges women should anticipate in their pursuit of a career in law enforcement?

A. One of the biggest challenges, and always the elephant in the room, is the physical differences between men and women. I worked hard at physical training but even at my best, most men still possess an upper body strength that I do not have. I took a lot of defense courses and participated in many different obstacle trainings to make myself as strong as possible and I felt pretty capable physically. I think my male colleagues respected my dogged work in this regard as well. I have heard from many women that they are not regarded as equals by their colleagues, but I did not face this problem very much to be honest.

One way in which I felt a difference though was when it came to working with male defendants. If you were too harsh, you were a “bitch” but if you were too easy then you didn’t deserve respect. This was a hard line to walk at times, but I found a nice balance in setting an authoritative tone from the outset while also showing that I could be understanding and flexible at times. The tone had to be established immediately though.

Q. What degrees would you recommend for women interested in law enforcement?

A. The typical criminology and criminal justice degrees are good of course but I also recommend psychology, and more specifically, forensic psychology. Forensics is an important area and if one is interested in going deeper into the science, then forensic science is a wonderful degree. I would also encourage a major or double major that includes a language. Proficiency in Spanish, Arabic, and Russian will all elevate interest by employers.

Q. What are some tips to help women fight for equality in the field?

A. From my own experience, I worked hard to show my value in a way that highlighted my strengths. I was proficient with a firearm, having beat a lot of my male colleagues immediately in a firearms qualification. I spoke Spanish and practiced more frequently then. I was very good with female clients and in many situations, when their female partners were upset, especially during home visits, the males would become more agitated. I could deescalate these situations nicely. I had a lot of combined strengths, which led to my male colleagues asking me to join certain teams with them. They respected me for my strengths even if they were different. I saw no reason why I would try to compete with my 6’4″ linebacker colleague in throwing a batting ram through a door. Let him do that. I simply knocked on the door and asked politely. In short, I recognized and embraced my strengths and I think this led to my male colleagues doing just the same.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add about women in law enforcement?

A. The number of women in corrections and in law is about equal to that of males now but we are still lacking in traditional policing roles. Now is a great time for women to demonstrate their strengths in policing, so I hope we will see more women in this field soon. I also think that women, or men, should further their education in this field when possible, obtaining master’s degrees and learning about the critical issues in policing from both a practitioner and academic point of view.

Resources for Women in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement

Professional Development and Networking for Women in Criminal Justice

  • International Association of Women Police (IAWP)
    Founded in 1915 in Los Angeles, this organization seeks to boost the ability of women to advance in law enforcement, as well as improve their ability to carry out law enforcement duties. Members can attend an international conference, get the Women Police Magazine, and take part in various organization committees.
  • National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE)
    The NAWLEE is a professional organization designed for those who hold upper-level management positions in law enforcement. NAWLEE works to advance the interests of current and aspiring female law enforcement executives by using a variety of tools, including special mentoring programs.
  • Mid-Atlantic Association of Women in Law Enforcement
    This non-profit organization promotes the interests of female law enforcement officers from Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Networking resources include an annual conference, student scholarships, and the option of becoming a member.

Advocacy Groups

  • National Center for Women & Policing (NCWP)
    This organization’s mission is to increase the number of women in law enforcement. By increasing female law enforcement officers, the hope is that it will improve overall police response, especially with respect to providing better assistance in cases of violence against women and reducing instances of excessive force or police brutality.
  • National Organization of Black Women in Law Enforcement, Inc. (NOBWLE)
    NOBWLE works to help train current and prospective female law enforcement officers. Despite the name of this organization, its membership is not limited to just women or black law enforcement officers. NOBWLE accomplishes its goals by creating networking opportunities and opening up dialogue that can bring about better understanding and positive change.
  • Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE)
    WIFLE is a non-profit organization that represents the interests of women working on the federal level. It offers special training, leadership, and professional advancement opportunities. There are also mentoring and scholarships programs to increase the recruitment and advancement of women in all types of federal law enforcement professions.