Gender at work on the force

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Madonna Harrington Meyer

Second Advisor

Madonna Harrington Meyer


Gender, Motherhood, Police, Qualitative methods, Domestic violence, Gendered organization

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


Scholars are increasingly studying how gender shapes work generally and police work in particular. A great majority of the research details the presence of masculinities in police departments as well as the under representation of policewomen. More recent research engages with various rationales for hiring policewomen, how policewomen may be utilized within police departments, and how the gendered division of labor at home affects the gendered division of labor at work. This project draws on two theoretical perspectives. At the organizational level gendered organizational theory (Acker 1990; Britton 2000) is used to understand how the masculine police organization structures the work lives of women particularly through promotions and parental policies. Regardless of how masculine the police organization many scholars and police administrators suggest hiring women because they are different from men. I investigate this emphasis on the difference between men and women and contrast it with an emphasis on equality for women (Gilligan 1982; Lorber 1990; Noddings 1984; Wallach Scott 1999). I explore the pathways policewomen take into the force, responses to domestic violence calls, and police mothers' style of police work. I use the qualitative methods of semi-structured in-depth interviews, ride-alongs, and participant observation in this study. The sample includes thirty-four policewomen, ten policemen, and five police administrators. The research focuses on three questions: (1) What characteristics of policewomen's lives draw them into what is still a very masculine workplace and how do these characteristics influence their paths within the Laketown police department? (2) To what extent and under what circumstances do policewomen deploy controlling, supportive and other behaviors in their responses to domestic violence calls? (3) In what ways do motherhood, police work, and the police organization shape each other? Findings suggest that hiring women to be different from men is largely unsuccessful. Most policewomen in this study find their way to the force through a number of pathways including family connections, job instability, former work as report technicians, and the consent decree. All policewomen start as patrol officers yet their pathways within the Laketown police department vary suggesting factors beyond gender shape their work careers. Focusing on domestic violence calls, a type of call that often dominates patrol officers' time, policewomen demonstrate a range of behaviors. Many policewomen demonstrate supportive behaviors where de-escalation already occurred or where the perpetrator had left the scene. They most often demonstrate controlling responses in the presence of perpetrators and in the presence of larger groups of officers. Policewomen's responses to domestic violence are contextual and not necessarily linked to gender. A number of policewomen who are also mothers actively shape police work as it shapes their lives as mothers. Some police mothers demonstrate a style of policing that they link to their motherhood status. It appears being a mother versus a parent or woman shapes police work. The career pathways of police mothers show a difficult path to promotions for most reinforcing that police organizational parental policies are still lacking. The active recruiting of women into the police force was quite successful in increasing the numbers of women in a male dominated and masculine organization. While many scholars suggest hiring women to do different work from their male counterparts it appears that as large quantities of women enter an organization they get dispersed across the organization through a combination of organizational need and personal desire. It also appears that job characteristics trump gender so hiring women to be caring will most likely be unsuccessful. Motherhood much more than gender shapes women's roles on and commitments to the force. Women can successfully be recruited into a largely masculine organization, but as long as women continue to hold the majority of childcare duties family policies must be improved to reduce career barriers.


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