“If you want to bring women in, and women are going to have babies, then you need to figure out how best to support that,” said Debra Langan, a researcher examining the experience of female police officers in Canada.
After having to repeatedly prove they are as good as their male counterparts, female police officers face a whole new set of on-the-job challenges if they decide to become mothers, according to new research based on interviews with officers from across Ontario.
As Canadian police services aim to attract — and retain — female officers, more work must be done to promote an environment conducive to motherhood, says Debra Langan, an associate professor of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“If you want to bring women in, and women are going to have babies, then you need to figure out how best to support that,” said Langan, who with Carrie Sanders and Tricia Agocs wrote “Canadian Police Mothers and the Boys’ Club,” recently published in the journal Women and Criminal Justice.
Their work is part of a small but growing body of research examining the experience of female police officers in Canada, a subject that has been extensively studied in the United States and Britain.
That research has consistently found women in policing are still considered “outsiders” and have to work harder than male colleagues to prove themselves. Even today, some say they have to listen to sexist or racist jokes to be considered part of the club and withstand being called names like “badge bunny” or “tomboy,” according to Western University research.
Langan’s work delves further into the experience of female police officers, specifically examining a group she’s dubbed “police mothers.” The research is based on in-depth interviews with 16 female police officers with children, from services all across Ontario and ranging in age from 26 to 50. The women worked in divisions including the homicide squad, sex crimes unit and traffic division.
Langan and her co-authors found the challenges for female officers began with announcing their pregnancies, which often quickly meant being transferred to duties typically reserved for officers on the disability list.
Many of the women felt there were other assignments they could have done to ensure safety, but that would not have been stigmatizing, Langan said.
Some complained about being subpoenaed to appear in court during their maternity leave — one just a week after giving birth — with little regard for child-care arrangements.
And several women expressed the feeling that becoming a mother caused them to automatically lose the professional gains they had made before getting pregnant.
“Often, after having to prove themselves all the way along, they lose ground when they announce their pregnancies, and sometimes they don’t regain it after they come back from their maternity leave,” Langan said.
For officers hoping to rise through the ranks once they return to work, there are concerns they have been or will be passed over for promotion because of a perception that child-care responsibilities will make them less dedicated.
Langan and her colleagues are expanding their research to examine the experiences of police mothers across Canada. After word spread that they were looking for research participants, she and her team quickly learned there is a high demand for their work.
“In less than a month, 107 police mothers responded, which is, in our combined experience, something we have never seen,” she said. “They were emphatically requesting an interview, and most expressing a need for change within their police services.”
Among the goals of their future work is examining the recruitment, retention and promotion practices of individual police services when it comes to female officers.
Though the percentage of front-line female officers is increasing, it’s happening slowly. According to Statistics Canada, 16.5 per cent of police officers in 2004 were women. A decade later, the figure had risen to 20.6 per cent.
In Toronto, the percentages are comparable: In 2007, 17 per cent of uniform officers were female; by 2016, it had risen to 19 per cent.
Langan said that percentage may be rising only incrementally because of attrition; more women may be signing on to be officers, but some aren’t staying.
“It’s the combination of the police culture, the organizational structures that make it difficult to parent and to do all the things that mothers are expected to do, that make some women decide to leave,” she said.
Langan and her colleagues are beginning to evaluate individual police services across Canada, on a voluntary basis, to make suggestions on how to develop or improve supports for female cops, particularly those who have or want children.
Although they have only begun research on how police services can accomplish that, Langan said, it starts with leadership.
“Establishing and promoting formal policies that signal the importance of both family life and work life and that allow for some flexibility are also critically important for police mothers and, we suspect, police fathers and other emergency response workers,” Langan, Sanders and Agocs write.