Double Bind: Being a Female Leader in a Police Organization

As I enter the final phase of my policing career, I am hopeful women in law enforcement will continue their forward momentum in obtaining specialized designations and access to leadership roles. Progress in this area has been positive within the Durham Regional Police Service, where trailblazing female officers challenge institutional and cultural norms to equalize gender disparities in both rank and influence. Milestone assignments include detectives in our homicide and drug units, use of force instructors, duty inspectors, and deputy chief of operations. As our Service and industry continue to evolve and integrate, however, further reconciliation is needed to correct for common disparities that continue to challenge female police leaders.

As in most industries, women in policing typically operate in a dichotomous environment. Those projecting a masculine exterior—one of toughness—are often rewarded with advancement and opportunity. But it is their nurturing and kindness that earn the approval of their colleagues, peers, and supervisors. In my 25 years of policing, this dichotomy has been the most challenging.

Gender stereotypes keep women from establishing a strong and credible command presence. Typically, women are either respected or liked, but rarely both. Gender biases have rooted a number of mutually exclusive expectations in defining what it means to be a woman and, separately, what it takes to be a leader (Zheng, Kark, & Meister, 2018). Women in policing face two choices: Be assertive and risk being judged and socially outcast; or conform to gender-based behavior expectations and risk leadership attainment. Zheng, et all (2018) demonstrates this industry-transcending double bind, recognizing four balancing acts that female leaders must confront:

  • Paradox 1: Demanding, yet caring
  • Paradox 2: Authoritative, yet participative
  • Paradox 3: Advocating for themselves, while serving others
  • Paradox 4: Maintaining distance, yet remaining approaching

We as police leaders need to recognize these gender-based tensions and work to expel them. Only then, will the benefits of gender diversification be realized.

It is critically important to address this dilemma for a great many reasons—equality being the most obvious. Beyond equality, however, we must accept the reality of the double bind as a barrier to inclusion and an impediment to authentic human equity valuation. As we continue to grow as individuals and as a profession, we have the opportunity to empower women to lead authentically, but this requires a culture shift that empowers their counterparts to follow authentically.