More jobs for the boys in blue?

by Joanne Black / 21 July, 2012
Eighteen months after the scarcity of women in senior management roles in the New Zealand Police was identified as a significant concern, there is just one woman among the top 52 officers.

Police mugshots always tell a story. A glance at the profiles of the 16 members of the police executive management group and the 12 district commanders tells one, too. It is that women are conspicuously under-represented in the most senior roles in the New Zealand Police. All 28 positions are held by men. What is more, as of last week, among all the officers ranked above inspector – 44 superintendents, five assistant commissioners, two deputy commissioners and one commissioner, comprising the 52 most senior sworn officers – there is just one woman. This is despite a December 2010 report identifying the lack of women in senior management roles as a significant concern. That report was the third of four annual reports on the Police commissioned by the State Services Commission, and it concluded that women in the Police did not feel overt bullying or harassment were major issues. 

Rather, the report, written by PricewaterhouseCoopers, said that “what most concerned them was the lack of women in senior management roles, particularly at Inspector and above”. It also identified a degree of frustration with “the many comments we have heard along the lines of ‘this change will be slow – it’s generational’.” Last month, the Police executive established a development board “to provide a more co-ordinated approach to the way future leaders in Police National Headquarters are identified and developed”. The board of nine, which includes the commissioner, both deputy commissioners and three assistant commissioners, includes one woman – and she is not a member of the force. 

Acting Police Commissioner Viv Rickard defends the composition of the board. “The reality is that we haven’t got anyone [female] at that level to be on that board,” he says. “At assistant-commissioner level and above there are no women, so in order to get around it, we have brought in a former chief executive who’s an exemplar in terms of development. “I could go and grab a female inspector or superintendent to be on that board, to satisfy a whole range of people in the organisation or externally, but the reality is we don’t do that with anybody else. I’m not bringing a Maori person or a Pacific person or [a member of] an ethnic [minority] in just because we want to tick some boxes. It’s an executive responsibility about what our workforce plan looks like and how we bring people through. Do I want a woman on the board? You betcha! We’d love to have a [female] assistant commissioner there who could operate at that level. That would be great, you bet.” 

So, why have women, who currently comprise 18% of sworn staff, made such little progress in breaking into the top ranks? It is not a simple question to answer, and the likely explanations are not necessarily unique to the Police. Rickard points out that, for a start, women apply for promotion less often than men. “In general, men will apply for roles within the New Zealand Police if they’ve got a chance at it. If they’ve got aspirations for it, they will apply, whereas our women – and this is a generalisation – will tend to look at the position and say, ‘Hmm, I don’t yet have those two particular skills so let me get those first before I apply for the role.’” 

The Police are hardly alone in having a gender imbalance, says Rickard. Lists of partners in law, accountancy and large consultancy firms all have similar imbalances. He will shortly go to a powhiri for a friend who will become only the second Maori partner in a consultancy firm that has 120 partners, of whom about 10 are women. Rickard also points out the average length of service for women in the Police is 9.5 years; for men, it is 12.5 years. It takes, on average, 20 years for someone to become a commissioned officer, “and what we see now is that women are progressing faster through the ranks, so they get there in about 18.5 years and it takes males around 21 years. So the pipeline in terms of women coming through is shorter. “Also, some of our positions require a whole range of technical skills and [having been] exposed to a lot of things. So there have been times when ability and how long you’ve been in the job and what you’ve done to gain all that experience has counted. But as you see at the moment, the chance of women progressing more quickly is a lot better.” 

Since 2006, Rickard says, 40% of the police officers who attend development programmes are women. “That’s a significant number that we’re pushing through. Clearly that’s a positive. Second, we’ve found that those people who go on development programmes are five times more likely to be promoted.” At a recent inspectors’ qualifying course Rickard attended, six of the 20 graduates were women, “so there are some good trends. I understand people saying, ‘Why isn’t this happening overnight?’ I accept that, but the reality is that for Maori, Pacific, ethnic [minorities] and women, they just want to be promoted on merit and be given the same opportunity to gain experience and do that through secondment opportunities and development opportunities. “And everything we are doing is pointing towards us doing the right things to get a diverse workforce.” 

Since the resignation in February of national road policing manager Superintendent Paula Rose, Superintendent Sandra Manderson has been the sole female among the 52 top-ranked officers. The only woman to have been appointed as a district commander, she has just accepted a position in charge of New Zealand policing for the 2015 World Youth Soccer Tournament and the 2015 World Cup Cricket Tournament, which New Zealand is co-hosting with Australia. She has always preferred operational jobs to administrative ones, and thinks that has probably helped her career progression. “Choosing non-operational roles limits career options for women, just as it does for men. I’ve stayed in the operational area because that’s the work I like most.” 

Nevertheless, she says, when she became the first female superintendent more than 10 years ago, she did not expect that in 2012 she would again be the only one. “When I was at the lower ranks, I would also have expected that a number of women ahead of me would have become superintendents, because a lot of very capable women have been before me in the New Zealand Police. “Once we passed that barrier of the first woman, yes, I thought there would be a number of others appointed. You have to ask why so few are promoted.” Manderson does not have the answer. She agrees that sometimes women are reluctant to apply for positions and she thinks they might also have a tendency to stay in one role longer, in order to see it through. She also wonders if those doing the hiring may at times have an unconscious bias. “I don’t think they would sit down and say, ‘She’s a female, she’s not getting the job.’ I don’t think that for one minute. But I do think that there is a tendency for the hierarchy to appoint people who are like themselves. Each lot of commissioners and deputy commissioners who come in here have their own group of preferred people that they have worked with and who they think are competent and can do the job and those are the ones they push through the organisation.” 

BarHava-Monteith has not worked with the Police, but in the professional and business organisations she’s worked in and, increasingly, in the state sector, there are common themes. She says it is important for managers to recognise their own biases because they end up infl uencing careers. For example, when a manager is choosing between a middle-ranked male and female, both of whom are capable and ambitious to do a job that will provide them with new challenges and opportunities to learn new skills and to network, the manager is likely shaping the career progression of the successful candidate – and also of the person who does not get it. “Similar situations are likely to happen in the Police, where someone is chosen for particular assignments that will give them experience and networking opportunities, which they will be able to leverage off later in their careers. So organisations need to be explicit in acknowledging that there is a bias, identifying it and acting to redress it. And it’s not necessarily a negative bias; it can be well-meant, but that’s often how women get left out.” 

Equally, BarHava-Monteith says, women have a responsibility to shape their own careers. “If women know there is a good assignment coming up, they should make sure people know they are interested in it, and put their name forward as a person who wants to take on new challenges.” If there was a single aspect of themselves that women should work on, BarHava-Monteith says, it is confidence. “Confidence is not about saying, ‘I’m fabulous’; it’s about looking back on your achievements and really leveraging them. So it’s about not undermining your work experience – or your other life experiences. Don’t apologise for the one year you took off to be with your children. Instead, think of it as a year you took to gain a lot of perspective by doing things you had not done before. It’s how you conceptualise, how you frame or reframe those experiences, that matters.” She says that Rickard’s observation that women apply for promotions less frequently than men is true in many organisations. 

“A woman tends to look at a job description and say to herself, ‘I can do 70% of that but there’s 30% I can’t do’, so she won’t even apply. Generally, a man might look at a job description and say, ‘I can do 65% of that, I’m going to apply.’ That is something that we’ve observed ourselves at Professionelle, but it is also backed up by a lot of literature in the area.” She says women are quick – too quick, in her opinion – to point out what they cannot do. “They will say, ‘I need to work on this area and I’m not so strong on that area’, whereas men are generally less likely to point out the things they are not very good at. They are more likely to point out the things they are good at, so there’s this self-limiting talk and self-limiting behaviour among women.” She says that even in 2012, women who are confident and assertive risk being labelled aggressive. “It becomes a very difficult path to tread and in a male-dominated environment it becomes even more difficult, because if you’re too soft, you’re considered not worthy, but if you are assertive and look like a leader then you are considered aggressive. So there’s something about those environments where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” 

If these sound like the complaints women have made for decades, BarHava-Monteith says that is because some organisations have not changed in that time, “and the ones that have changed have done so because they have made a deliberate effort to change. They acknowledge that we all have biases. “I applaud those organisations, including some law firms, who are working on that and understanding what their bias is and how that is reflected in the way they treat everyone.” 

Back at Police National Headquarters, both Manderson and Rickard are adamant women do not want promotions that are not based on merit. Police have set a five-year target to bring women’s promotion rates up to those of men, to have women make up at least 10% of total commissioned officers and have “a much higher representation” at inspector level and above. Rickard says it will happen gradually. “At senior-sergeant level, we have about 45 women. If I wanted to make it equal in five years’ time, I would have to promote all those female seniors with the vacancies I have projected and basically promote no men. So that’s not a merit proposition. “The reality is some of the women won’t want the roles, but my job is to ensure they get the best opportunity to put their best foot forward. “So some of our targets agree to do that, but I don’t want a ticking-the-box target – I want a realistic target that we’re going to push women through our place and push Maori, Pacific and ethnic [minorities] through our place as well.” Manderson is certainly hoping for change. She recalls being a young constable in Christchurch and asking to join the CIB, which had a large staff, but being told, “No, we have three women there already and until one of them leaves, we’re not having any more.” 

“I did also once ask if I could join the Armed Offenders Squad and I was told there was nowhere I could [get changed]. They were serious, so I asked, if I promised not to look, would I be allowed to join? I wasn’t. “I don’t think you’d get an answer like that these days. Well, at least not if you asked a thinking person.”


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