Opinion Articles

Why haven’t we had a female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police before now?

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The appointment in February 2017 of Cressida Dick as the first female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service – and thus the head of the largest police force in the UK – is clearly an important recognition of gender equality. But it raises interesting questions as to why it has taken so long, and what this tells us about policing in the UK.

The first women were officially employed as serving police officers with official powers of arrest just over 100 years ago against the backdrop of the First World War. Their numbers remained tiny – less than one per cent of the police establishment in the first half of the twentieth century - and the idea of ‘career’ was limited to those who chose not to marry, given the existence of a formal marriage bar until 1946 in England and Wales (1968 in Scotland). Until the early 1970s female officers were employed in a separate department to the men as a ‘force within a force’ – the Women Police Branch in the Met - with separate pay structures, working conditions, line management and promotions processes. Their work was seen as an add-on to that of male officers: working with women and children as an extension of their ‘natural’ caring abilities.

Yet women in the Met were, for much of the twentieth century, at the vanguard in developing women’s policing roles. As Head of the Met’s Women Police Branch in the 1930s, Dorothy Peto identified a need for women officers to become specialists in child protection (including neglect and cases involving children missing from home); this was added to the repertoire of duties that also included taking statements from children and female victims of assault. The models that she developed spread to forces elsewhere. Categorising women’s work as a specialism that was linked to their femininity enabled them to get a foot in the door and guarantee a place in policing. Clearly, too, it was work of very significant value - although not really recognised as such given that the safeguarding of children from sexual abuse has only very recently been placed at the very heart of policing.

Yet by the 1960s the ‘specialist’ role was also seen by many as a ‘straitjacket’, and it was another Head of the Met’s Women Police Branch - Shirley Becke - who made powerful arguments for full equality of opportunity for women. The Met’s Women Police Branch was effectively absorbed into the wider force in 1969, with women undertaking the same types of work as men. Formal integration of men and women within the same promotions system and line management structures took place in 1973 (with most other forces in England, Scotland and Wales integrating by 1975).

Thus it took the first fifty years of women’s policing to win the argument that men and women should undertake the same roles. It has taken almost the next fifty years to win the next battle: against the glass ceiling. In the 1980s women struggled against sexual discrimination within a supposedly equal service. The first female Chief Constable, Pauline Claire, was appointed in Lancashire in 1996. Whilst pioneering a role for women, the sheer size, density and complexity of the Met has meant it remained the last bastion until now.

The appointment of the first woman Commissioner is a reflection, too, of the changing nature of policing itself. Well into the twentieth century, police forces recruited male constables from backgrounds in manual occupations. Beat policing was undoubtedly tough and required brute strength on occasion. As in the Victorian period, masculine physical presence was used as a disciplinary technique, bolstered by a height requirement for recruits and enhanced artificially by the tall police helmet. Yet from the 1960s onwards technological changes have meant that policing has become ever more specialised, in many cases based on technical and professional knowledge involving graduate entry, and on a wide range of intellectual, social and emotional skills as well as physical fitness and agility. The changing profile of who can usefully be a police officer is a result of the changing and varied profile of skills and attributes that are needed in contemporary policing and no longer simplistically linked to gender stereotypes (although aspects undoubtedly remain).

Indeed, the profile of senior officers has also markedly shifted. Until the 1950s the Met’s Commissioners were often appointed from the military ranks rather than police backgrounds. This was because there were strong parallels between the military and the police as hierarchical and disciplinary organisations, but also because policing was thought about as mainly concerned with public order and public space (and not with private or domestic lives). Cressida Dick follows in the new footprint that was established in the second half of the twentieth century: of appointing a Commissioner as a career police officer who had served across ranks in a wide variety of policing roles, and with experience of other forces during their service as well as of successes and failures. In 2017 the fact that she is a woman is irrelevant to the role that she takes up and her qualifications for doing so.

The history of women’s role in policing suggests that structural and legal changes (integration, equal pay and sex discrimination legislation) can take several generations to bring about changes in attitudes and practices and hence real change. The ending of a glass ceiling for some women, of course, simply acts to highlight the significant ground that now needs to be covered in order that police officers – in the Met in particular – truly reflect a culturally and ethnically diverse society.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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