When I was 11, my family visited Washington, D.C., and the absolute highlight of the trip was a tour of FBI Headquarters. Without giving away the “state secret” of my age, suffice it to say that J. Edgar Hoover was very much alive and also the Director of the FBI at the time. I asked the guide a question that day that turned out to be quite prescient: “Can girls be FBI Agents?” His response: “No, because girls would spend all their time painting their nails.”
At that tender age, encouraged by parents who told me I had no limits in life, I recognized how incredible his response was. Fifteen years later, as I stood in the kitchen of my New York City apartment, reading my letter of appointment to the FBI as a special agent, I thought immediately of that tour guide… I would have LOVED to have shown him the letter and watched the expression on his face!
What I believed as an 11-year-old girl, and then saw in my subsequent 25+ year career in the FBI, was that women change the game considerably for the better when they are in law enforcement organizations.
We live with outrageous levels of violence in our world today, not just in the United States, but throughout great swaths of the world in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Whether due to terrorism, governmental instability, general criminality, or abuse of power , violence is not on the wane—and gender-based violence is on the rise. In the U.S., just this past year we’ve seen myriad acts of inappropriate and/or excessive use of force by law enforcement practitioners, most of whom I know from experience are doing a heroic job putting their lives on the line to protect people. And we have only to look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, home to wonderful people and cultures, to see how war, terrorism, economic woes, and governmental instability have created record levels of refugees and internally displaced people (nearly 60 million), and extraordinary levels of violence.
One of the biggest common factors in all of these places, the U.S. included, is a dearth of women in rank-and-file and leadership roles in law enforcement institutions.
Katherine Spillar of the Feminist Majority Foundation wrote a piece earlier this month for The Washington Post echoing my experience in law enforcement. She argues that more female police officers would help stop police brutality, and I’d actually take Ms. Spillar’s views further. The only way we will reduce violence in the world, regardless of its source, is with more women taking a role in law enforcement, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding.
During my five years living and working with the FBI in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, there were only three countries (Rwanda, Niger, France) of a total of about 25, where I had a woman counterpart leading at or near my level. About seven of these nations were unstable, had recently come out of conflict, or were actively in conflict. Even in those nations (or pseudo-nation states like ISIS), where the societal and legal constructs do not support the education and equality of women, women have tremendous influence in the daily lives of those with whom they live and work.
Why would more women in law enforcement make a difference? How?
For starters, women officers universally engage with the community in a manner that’s different from the approach men typically take. We tend to employ alternate means to resolve conflict and work to diffuse volatile situations through verbal communication. I learned early in my career that one can always escalate a situation, but there is no way to de-escalate a situation if it’s been raised to the level of force.
Women are generally more effective at building trust within communities, and women always know what’s going on in their communities. We are demonstrably less prone to corruption and abuse of power. We are also more effective at dealing with violence against women, and victims are far more likely to report acts of violence to women officers. Research tell us this, as does my 29 years of personal experience.
In the US, while the numbers of women in law enforcement initially increased dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, growth has been slow to stagnant for nearly two decades, with representation remaining at approximately 12 percent nationwide. In the international arena, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq are instructive. All three nations have staggeringly high rates of violence, and they are among the most dangerous places in the world for women and girls. They are the locations for the majority of the world’s terrorist incidents, and concomitantly, the lowest levels of women in law enforcement roles (only about one percent of their law enforcement personnel are women). Women officers in these countries are rarely placed in decision-making roles, and are often relegated to administrative positions.
We need more women in leadership positions in law enforcement throughout the world, but it can’t be done by mandate alone. We women need to embrace our power and leadership potential; know that we can, and do, perform this job exceptionally well; and encourage the girls in our lives to feel the same, as my parents did with me.
Although there were some women in law enforcement when I was an 11-year-old, to many at the time, imagining women in the FBI (let alone in leadership roles) was much like imagining going to the moon before Apollo 11. But we did go to the moon, and we will get more women in law enforcement, too.