It’s not enough to diversify police forces, stresses one Western researcher. The culture within the forces themselves must change if working conditions are to improve for officers – particularly for women and visible minority officers.
“I’m not anti-police; I’m pro-police. The institution itself needs reform and the officers working within it are struggling in many ways,” said Lesley Bikos, a Sociology PhD student at Western. “The whole point has always been advocacy on behalf of police officers, so they can have better working conditions, so they can have better lives – both on and off duty.”
Bikos, who spent more than four years with the London Police Service (LPS) before starting her academic career, recently published a paper titled “I Took the Blue Pill”: The Effect of the Hegemonic Masculine Police Culture on Canadian Policewomen’s Identities.
The paper is the result of a preliminary study she conducted with 15 female officers from five different police forces across southwestern Ontario. Those interviews indicated female officers are working in an environment inherently inhospitable to women, one in which sexism is evident in policy, promotions, sexual jokes and innuendo, and one in which some women feel they are pitted against one another if they wish to get ahead.
Only four interviews into her research, she realized “there’s a real issue here and this needs to be explored a little more,” she explained.
Her paper received significant media attention last month. From that, Bikos has heard from more than 70 officers – men and women from all ranks across the country, including municipal, provincial and national police forces – who want to speak with her.
“During that (initial) study, I began to realize, listening to my participants, gender was not the only issue. A lot of the women spoke about how I should interview male officers because there were a lot of male officers equally uncomfortable with the culture of policing. The culture itself was the actual issue more so than gender. That’s why I decided to open this study up,” Bikos explained.
Currently, her research is exploring police culture as a whole, and trying to see how gender, race and sexual orientation intersect with that culture. She has opened her study up to include men and women, nationally. “It’s important to compare,” Bikos continued. “Is it geographical? Is it the size of the force? What is at play?”
Harassment remains a common theme, as is the feeling among female officers that they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves on the force. Some women felt they had to prove they were physically competent for the job while men were given the benefit of the doubt. Some women indicated there was an atmosphere of bullying attributed to the institution of policing in which women would have to fight other women for one spot on a given unit. Some women felt they didn’t have the same training opportunities as the men on the force, creating barriers to promotion.
A lot of the themes Bikos encountered in the first study are being bolstered with the interviews she is conducting now. She is still hearing reports of gender discrimination, racism and homophobia. She continues to hear about stigma surrounding mental health.
This has not been the experience of all officers she has spoken with, she stresses, but even if a few spoke up about negative working conditions stemming from sexism, racism or homophobia, it would be enough to indicate there was a need for change in police culture.
It’s tough for officers to be open and honest about this, she added. Police culture promotes silence and loyalty. If you’re found outside of that culture, if officers push back, often it means career suicide. This is what makes her work all the more important.
“My end goal is advocacy,” said Bikos, who pursued a PhD to gain the credentials to be able to affect positive change. “I’m looking for anyone who wants to talk to me, good experiences, negative experiences and somewhere in between. The reason for that is because the goal of this study is not to discredit police departments – the goal is positivity. I’m asking positive questions as well. What are some of the opportunities you’ve had in policing? I ask everyone that. Because I want to know what’s working.”