Aug 29 2016
Despite unprecedented numbers of women, the "old boys' club is still alive and well" in Canadian policing, says a former London officer studying the conditions women face on the thin blue line.
Across Canada, police forces still espouse a hyper-masculine culture that plays out in policy, promotions, sexual jokes and innuendo, and leads to a dog-eat-dog mentality among women officers, says PhD candidate Lesley Bikos.
Bikos interviewed 15 women from five Southwestern Ontario police services as part of her just-published research on women in policing. The paramilitary-like environment demands loyalty and discourages dissent, creating a "toxic environment" that can affect on-the-ground policing, she says.
"Not all officers fit the model of the bulging muscle hero running down criminals in the street. We need to shift the way we see policing in our culture. We need officers of all skills, who are high in empathy and low on ego, who are educated before they join and continue that education as society evolves," said Bikos, who's doing her doctoral work in sociology at Western University.
"I truly believe if we can improve the culture and the environment police officers are working in, it's going to trickle down to the public."
In recent years, police forces across Canada have made efforts to diversify. London police have acknowledged the lack of diversity in their service and launched ambitious campaigns to recruit women.
Strength will come in numbers, said one of the force's two highest-ranking women.
"It's getting better. Your voice is heard (as a woman), you are listened to, but there is something to be said about numbers. We need more women to join. The reality is that change isn't made unless we are present," said Insp. Lynn Sutherland.
She said the policing culture has changed dramatically, even in the last decade.
"Now, there are enough of us around that young police officers, male and female, come to me seeking a guide and I can offer that to them. Our presence is permitting a culture where they can find like-minded mentors. Even five years ago, my mentor was a gentleman," she said.
Women account for about 20 per cent of all uniformed officers in Canada, more than ever before still a minority despite their growing numbers - especially in top ranks, where they hold only 12 per cent of the jobs.
Women officers also often feel a need to prove themselves equal to their male peers.
Bikos said she's heard similar stories even from those happy in their environment, regardless of the police force or its size.
"There are barriers that have been there since the '70s," said Bikos. "I was definitely taken off guard by how deep those barriers go in the culture."
She said women spoke of being punished or seeing others punished by social and professional isolation for speaking out against accepted policies and administration. Those who found their environment positive and supportive often also considered themselves "one of the boys," she said.
Despite the barriers, Bikos said the women are passionate about their work.
"For the most part, they loved their jobs," she said. "They wanted to serve in the best way possible."
Bikos worked as a London officer for four and a half years, but left eight years ago. She declined to talk about her own experience or comment on London police, saying she wants to keep the focus on participants' experiences.
"I heard stories about corruption, sexual harrassment, abuse, sexual assault, racism, homophobia and still very big stigma toward mental health. Almost all of my participants talked about the fact that they would be uncomfortable admitting they had a mental health issue of any kind," said Bikos, who is working on a follow-up study and seeking more officers, male and female.
Several participants described women-on-women bullying and a "dog-eat-dog" environment fuelled by competition to be the woman chosen for a few token spots in some departments, she said.
Women also said they went above and beyond to prove they were as capable as their male counterparts.
"Many of the police women interviewed admitted that they hesitated to call for backup, worried that they would be perceived as 'weak' by their male co-workers," Bikos wrote in her master's degree research paper, titled I Took the Blue Pill: The Effect of Hegemonic Masculine Police Culture on Canadian Policewomen's Identities.
Diversification is one of the keys to equity in policing, said Jo-Ann Savoie, a former president of the Ontario Women in Law Enforcement.
"I believe throughout time women have had to justify their career choice and fight for career development and promotional opportunities. I believe in some smaller police services, the old boys' network remains, however, in the larger police services across the province, I do not think that is still the case," Savoie said in an email.
But Bikos' findings came as no surprise to Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police spokesperson Joe Couto, who published a thesis paper in 2014 on the struggles faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered police officers in Ontario.
"Even though we've made significant strides in terms of the number of women in policing and in leadership positions, the culture has traditionally encouraged that hyper-masculinity," he said. "For those who don't fit in with the macho culture, it becomes very difficult to belong and to negotiate through the experience with your career."
"They won't get into (a female officer's) face and say, 'You don't belong here.' They find sexist jokes, pranks in the locker room, ostracization of females from social gatherings. They send out a signal."
He heard similar anecdotes as Bikos did during his interviews with 21 LGBT officers for his paper and said research like his and Bikos' is essential as police forces try to become more inclusive.
"We know for a fact that when we employ community policing, it's less about fighting crime and more about preventing crime, and it makes a whole lot of sense to have people who reflect the community," he said.
With 58 municipal police services in Ontario and thousands of officers, Bikos wants to broaden her research beyond the 15 women and hopes to hear from other women and male officers for her next study in her PhD research. She said she won't gp through administration to meet officers, wanting to avoid "hand-picked" candidates. She wants to hear both the positive and negative, what works and what doesn't.
Interested in talking?
Read the research paper:
(London Free Press)