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Promotional processes and systemic gender bias

February 10, 2021  By Monique Rollin

Facing more challenges than ever before, law enforcement organizations are considering ideas to improve the quality and diversity of leadership without looking internally first. The idea of ‘systemic’ bias with regards to gender explores how the measure of competency is interconnected with unequal social and cultural structures, marginalizing female-identifying individuals.

We know that the police culture, deeply rooted in paramilitary
leadership, is still bound by traditional leadership models and promotional processes that focus on authoritative, individualistic leaders who may be inclined to feel safe in finding common characteristics amongst one another. Senior Command has often been taught to fear the recognition of gender differences, including various communication styles and servant leader proficiencies rather than become skilled in understanding or supporting them. We have all been forced to repeat the phrase,“only competence counts” instead of changing our understanding of “competency” or considering diversity in leadership may contribute to innovation, performance and morale.

Increasing diversity isn’t about quotas. Some men feel that they are deeply unfair, while women are insulted at the idea of tokenism and only being promoted because of their gender. It’s about removing systemic barriers and taking the weight away from those coveted tasks and assignments that influence promotion decisions.

There is a great deal of pretense about inclusion and diversity in policing. Yes, we need to ensure more women become leaders (thereby reversing their under-representation in the ranks of power) but there are misguided solutions founded on the misconception that women ought to emulate men. The thinking is “if men have most of the senior roles, they must be doing something right, so advance those who act like them”. What frustrates members with the process is not a lack ofcompetent females, but few obstacles for incompetent males. As a consequence, gender differences in leadership effectiveness (what it takes to perform well) are out of sync with gender differences in leadership emergence (what it takes to make it to the top) and how we evaluate them.


We need to reward those who are concerned about the people they lead. It’s as simple as asking your subordinates what they value. Members who feel cared about, valued, respected and empowered report higher leader competencies than in those they see in constant competition for power. Our competency-based interview processes do little to measure the most valued leadership abilities. Leadership styles should be as diverse as the members they serve. Too often, women who possess these skills are left behind in the power struggles of hierarchies when promotional processes are announced. Your female-identifying members will tell you they have experienced significant barriers to career development because systemic biases limited their opportunities to undertake the most rewarded, challenging job assignments. Too often, workplace culture directly or indirectly discouraged them from assuming leadership styles unsupported by the organization. As primary caregivers, women may choose positions that allow them to better support their family needs, which can be perceived as unambitious and lead to fewer opportunities, even if they possess the desirable traits or best fit job criteria. Gender bias also affects the way applicants are perceived in competency-based interviews. Stereotypical beliefs affect evaluations. When members are perceived as less committed, this results in limited opportunities for advancement into senior leadership roles.

The reality of the ‘meritocracy myth’ exists. While many organizations pride themselves on promoting candidates based on their individual skills and qualifications, police culture and bias can sway selection and promotion decisions. The only controversial aspect of these views is the notion that increasing female representation in leadership would augment rather than reduce meritocracy. The best gender bias intervention focuses on equality of potential and talent. That only happens when we have more gender-equal leadership to enable men to learn different leadership approaches from women as much as women have always been told to learn leadership approaches from men.

To challenge systemic gender bias, we must value the experiences and perception of your members and look at your processes through their lenses. Change begins by fostering an environment where all individuals feel empowered to freely
express opinions.

Monique Rollin is a retired Inspector for the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service and was the first female member promoted to the rank of Inspector. She holds an executive position with the Ontario Women in Law Enforcement and serves as vice president and director of training for Canadian Critical Incident Inc.

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