Theme Policing

Written by Susan Harwood, Susan Harwood and Associates Quality Consultancy Services; Australasian Council of Women and Policing and Helen McDermott, Australasian Council of Women and Policing

The presence and profile of women leaders in policing in Australia have been somewhat constrained by the overall slow pace and subordinate place of women in this highly masculinist workplace. Research on women and policing by Heidensohn (1992), Brown (1998), Silvestri (2003), Harwood (2006) and others indicates that women attempting to make their way to the top in policing experience problems with identity, hostility and isolation. In this entry on women's leadership in policing we aim to subvert the traditional focus on male leadership models (and 'the men's club') by describing and celebrating a history of leadership skills and practices demonstrated by women in policing who have been recipients of some feminist-inspired awards. We argue that a somewhat different leadership picture emerges when we make visible those women whose capacities have been formally recognised by the Australasian Council of Women and Policing Inc. (ACWAP). The foreground of this feminist focus on contemporary women leaders with an overview of the historical context underpinning the role and participation of women in policing in Australia today.

Since its inception in 1829 in England, policing has been associated with men - 'Peel's Men'. Despite this focus on men, the involvement of women in policing has a relatively long history. Following extensive argument and lobbying, women in the USA, Australia and Britain women began to enter policing organisations in 1910, 1915 and 1915 respectively. The arguments put forward for the employment of women as police centred on the prevalence of public immorality and the role women were seen to play as 'God's Police': primarily as social workers but with some police powers.

Women first entered policing in Australia in 1915 and all states except Queensland had women working in policing by 1923. The first women to be integrated into general policing in Australia met resistance from both the men in the police force and the public. In 1915, when the NSW Police Department advertised two positions for female officers, nearly five hundred women applied. Two women, Lillian Armfield (King, and Maude Rhodes, were chosen and sworn in as probationary special constables. They were required to sign an indemnity clause absolving the Police Department of any responsibility for their safety. They were not issued with a uniform and instead wore civilian clothes and their service was recorded on a separate seniority list. Six months later in South Australia, Kate Cocks was employed as a police officer and was given the same powers of arrest as a policeman (Mune, The new policewomen worked sixty-hour weeks, with one day off and one week of holidays per year. They were denied police vehicles and therefore had to move drunks and prisoners by public transport. They received little training, although 'ju jitsu' was introduced after an attack on a policewoman.

In Victoria, the first policewomen were appointed in 1917 'as an experiment'. The decision was against the wishes of Police Commissioner Sainsbury, who was sure that 'trouble could be expected and the question of deciding who is "the boss" might soon have to be determined'. Senior police would not concede that women might have a role with victims of sexual assault. Police women quickly proved themselves and were able to expand their duties. In South Australia they had to check the bona fides of applicants for welfare. They began to assist detectives in the fight against the drug trade and sometimes found themselves breaking up brawls and overpowering suspects. By 1924, the numbers of women had increased to four in Victoria, eleven in South Australia, four in NSW, six in Western Australia and one in Tasmania. Queensland appointed its first two women police in 1931. These pioneer policewomen were given the usual duties, with additional clerical work, and began on nine shillings per week (males received 15 shillings and one penny), with no superannuation and no powers of arrest.

A variety of obstacles restricted the pool of available women, including height and weight restrictions, age barriers (entrants had to be younger than twenty-eight), and the 'marriage bar' (married women were ineligible for recruitment and all policewomen had to resign on marriage). A study by Brown et al. shows that while numbers of women in policing were growing during the 1940s, this changed when their jobs were handed over to homecoming soldiers. Throughout the 1970s, as the feminist revolution began to remove barriers for women in many occupations, equality for policewomen still lagged behind. Despite some obvious advances in thinking, at least one police commissioner in the late 1970s was still worried about sending women to the countryside because 'they inevitably marry the policemen'. In 1971, women constituted just 1.8 per cent of police personnel, growing to 12 per cent by 1991; ten years later, the figure was 19 per cent and, by 2011, the national participation rate had reached approximately 26 per cent.

The continuing, concerted efforts by most policing jurisdictions to improve their gender equity profiles have resulted in this upward trend in the national participation rate, largely fuelled by increases in the numbers of women recruits. These more recent changes to the percentages of women entering recruitment schools means that some cohorts are 50 per cent female; however, this change in entry level participation rates has not yet had any significant impact on the composition of management teams, where the highly masculinist culture of policing still predominates.

Leadership Styles and Philosophies and the Barriers to Women's Leadership

As is the case with the gender balance in policing in the USA and the United Kingdom, policing in Australia remains largely a male profession where leadership is still being coded male. As Kolb and Merrill-Sands found through their investigations at an agricultural research organisation, there are pervasive mental models reflecting 'masculine experience, masculine values and masculine life situations' (Kolb & Merrill-Sands, 195) confronting women who work in non-traditional workplaces. Within policing, these models sustain 'cultural assumptions' about 'decision-making and reward systems' (Kolb and Merrill-Sands, 195, 197). Meyerson and Fletcher spell this point out further:

The barriers to women's advancement in organizations today have a relatively straightforward cause. Most organizations have been created by and for men and are based on male experiences ... organizational definitions of competence and leadership are still predicated on traits stereotypically associated with men: tough, aggressive, decisive. (Meyerson & Fletcher, 129)

This is very clearly illustrated when we examine the leadership history of Australian policing: only two women to date have had the opportunity to model their leadership skills at the highest level, as the head of a policing jurisdiction. They are former Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon and late Assistant Commissioner Audrey Fagan. As we will discuss below, each had to battle a hostile press, balance work/life issues and preside over jurisdictions where a masculine model of leadership was the norm.

Prenzler and Hayes note that 'for much of the Twentieth Century women were allowed a place within mainstream policing only in the most limited functions and numbers' (21). Stereotypical images, myths and false conceptions about women feature prominently in research on women in policing; many of the researchers present women's experiences in policing in the context of a distinctive police culture. In her 2007 study Leadership for the Disillusioned, Amanda Sinclair explains that it is more usually the case that men describe, teach and determine leadership models: 'Leadership is also usually seen to be men's knowledge: taught by men, to men, using the examples of great men' (41).

Sinclair (1998) also suggests that the lack of women within executive levels of the majority of organisations leads to misconceptions about and constraints on how women conduct themselves. She observes that, where there are more women, they are 'less constrained and trapped within stereotypes and assumptions about how women "should be"' (Sinclair, 1998, 153). Sinclair's research demonstrates that women with low power 'often avoid other women, whether in administrative or professional roles'. They do this, she suggests, 'to attempt to "pass" in predominantly male environments' (Sinclair, 1998, 164).

Similarly, Marisa Silvestri found in her 2003 study on women leaders in policing in the United Kingdom that women are only too aware of their ambiguous positioning within the workplace; she went on to comment that many of the women she interviewed had tried to gain entrance to the men's club by adopting 'male models of identity and behaviour' (Silvestri, 118). West and Zimmerman's 1987 analysis of 'doing gender' underlines the challenging path for women who choose non-traditional occupations; if policewomen, individually or collectively, fail to 'do gender appropriately', then, it is their 'character, motives and predispositions' that are called to account, not the values, motives or practices of the organisation (West & Zimmerman, 146).

West and Zimmerman's argument is supported by Gerber's 2001 analysis of the mixed messages that predicate the performance of women police. He suggests that women in policing can remain in conflict about the appropriateness of masculine or feminine practices throughout their career:

A concern expressed throughout the literature on the 'woman police officer personality' is that women need to be 'defeminized' and manifest masculine-type personality traits in order to be successful in police work ... But other studies have suggested that women officers need to exhibit some feminine-type qualities in order to be considered competent ... These conflicting reports raise some important questions ... What personal qualities are necessary for women police officers to be evaluated as competent? Are women officers required to manifest stereotypically 'masculine' attributes, or are there pressures on them to demonstrate that they meet cultural standards for 'femininity'? (Gerber, xviii)

Acker (139) argues that feminists writing about organisations often assume that organisational structure is 'gender neutral'. In discussing the absence of empirical research on gender in studies in workplace democracy, Acker notes that some of the explanation for such absence lies with the reality that organisations are imbued with a male view of the world.

What happens then when women leaders do emerge in policing? Are they programmed to see and act from a 'male view of the world'? From the outset of her tenure, Christine Nixon appears to have been imbued with a different view of how to lead; Amanda Sinclair worked at close range with Christine Nixon, 'shadowing' her for a number of years as she commenced what was then a new role for her as chief commissioner of Victoria Police. Writing in an issue of ACWAP's Journal for Women and Policing (2009), which celebrated Christine Nixon's policing career, Professor Sinclair made some clear observations about the leadership philosophies and practices of this particular role model:

Right from the start, Nixon did the Chief Commissioner's job differently. Of the many changes she initiated, three areas of reform have been particularly distinctive and innovative: working with the community and bringing into policing external stakeholders; redefining police work including a strong focus on measurement and evidence; and internal cultural reforms focusing on professionalizing the force and increasing diversity and opportunities (Sinclair, 2009, 8)

Importance of Role Models or Mentors

In 2001, Christine Nixon not only made history by becoming Australia's first woman commissioner of police, she also became an important role model for women inside and outside of policing. While the significance of this appointment was evident to many women (and men) at the time, what has become more obvious in the interim is that this single appointment had a major impact on women's participation in policing. The high profile and engaging, assured leadership style of Christine Nixon was responsible for heightening the aspirations of women in policing everywhere, especially in Victoria where Christine began an active campaign to improve the participation of women in her jurisdiction. In describing herself as 'a keen chronicler' of Christine Nixon's leadership, Amanda Sinclair (2009, 7) states that she felt concern that Ms Nixon's leadership style was not being accorded due recognition:

[I] worried that her visionary and innovative steps as Police Commissioner have not necessarily been fully appreciated by audiences and researchers used to seeing leadership in its more attention seeking forms, or to put it bluntly, used to valuing the actions of men. Even leadership researchers who should know better remain attached to a masculine kind of leadership sometimes termed 'heroic leadership', those who lead from the front with a loud voice and over-confident vision. Yet against most models of transformational and authentic leadership, Christine is a stand-out exemplar (Kouzes & Posner 2002; George et al. 2007).

By the time Chief Commissioner Nixon left this role in 2009, the participation rate for women in policing at Victoria Police had grown to 24.5 per cent, which compared very favourably with the 19 per cent national average.

While there are still very few women in formal leadership roles, those who do achieve higher ranks can find themselves in great demand as mentors and role models for women still working their way upwards through the ranks. Such is the case with Barbara Etter APM, a former assistant commissioner Western Australia Police, who describes her time in policing as 'a tremendous career' but one that was 'not without its challenges'. Ms Etter states that she considers herself to have been 'very fortunate' to have had a number of significant male mentors during her career, including several commissioners. At the same time, Barbara Etter has been described as a role model by many women police across Australia: for taking on the role of an assistant commissioner in one of the most densely masculinist policing organisations in Australasia; for her capacity to take on myriad leadership roles within and outside policing; for her ability to amass a formidable list of both academic and professional qualifications while undertaking her policing work; and, for demonstrating that her skills were transferable outside of policing by winning the 2006 Telstra Business Woman of the Year Award (Western Australia).

Audrey Fagan was another well-educated, motivated and thoughtful leader in policing who spent time and energy empowering those around her . During her rise to the top, it is evident that despite the challenges of doing so, Audrey Fagan supported and mentored women behind her. The Australian Police Medal she received in 2004 was awarded not only for her contribution to Australia's counter-terrorism effort but also for her work in enhancing and promoting the role of women in law enforcement. She sat on many boards and committees, making a valuable contribution to many facets of policing. Appointed as the national capital's chief police officer in 2005, Audrey Fagan at the same time fulfilled the role of an assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (the AFP). Audrey was only the second woman (after Victoria's chief commissioner, Christine Nixon) to be placed in charge of an Australian policing jurisdiction.

As an active member of the Canberra community, Audrey Fagan often spoke at women's forums, breakfasts and events and within the policing community. Taking seriously her role as a senior woman in policing, she represented the AFP as one of the co-chairs for the 2002 Women and Policing Globally conference, a joint international initiative for ACWAP, the International Association of Women Police and the AFP.

In a paper delivered to a 2005 ACWAP conference in Darwin, Audrey emphasised those aspects of leadership that focus on people skills, trust, empowering others and communication:

In order for a modern leader to survive the complex challenges of the dynamic environment in which so many of us work, we must trust our people. There are many dangers in assuming that you know best. Increasingly the modern leader's strategic outlook must be very broad ... We cannot and do not know it all ... We must surround ourselves with skilled, competent and trustworthy people and motivate them to achieve their potential.

Tragically, Audrey Fagan ended her life in 2007, at a time when she had endured an attack on her professional competence by the local media. Stunned by Audrey's premature death, ACWAP members decided to honour the leadership contribution that this exceptional woman made to women and policing through the Audrey Fagan Memorial Award. This award celebrates the life, achievements, community policing work, support of women and the importance of continuing education and qualifications to which the late Audrey Fagan was committed. Each year the ACWAP committee selects a worthy winner, whose name and achievements are recognised through the Audrey Fagan Memorial Award, bestowed at the annual Excellence in Policing Awards Dinner.

During their respective policing careers, Christine Nixon, Audrey Fagan and Barbara Etter were active members of ACWAP and received formal acknowledgement of their leadership contributions through ACWAP's awards process.

ACWAP: A Feminist Support Group for Women and Policing

Established in 1997, the Australasian Council of Women and Policing Inc. Is a leading feminist network for women and by women in policing. By participating in this group, women in policing can and do engage in various forms of 'tempered radicalism' (Meyerson & Scully). They do so by stepping outside organisational restraints to name and push back gendered practices in their densely masculinist workplaces. ACWAP fulfils a role in giving voice to women in a profession where their absence from key decision-making roles and an associated 'excess of men' (Sinclair, 2004) at senior management levels means that the majority of women's voices are rarely heard or considered. Despite the relatively small size of its membership, ACWAP can and does 'punch above its weight', achieving both a national and global outreach that links members to similarly feminist organisations in other countries and regions. The biennial conferences attract a range of researchers; importantly, they also provide a unique forum for women in policing to have their voices heard about issues of concern to women, including domestic violence, trafficking and sexual harassment.

Christine Nixon's role during the council's gestation and beyond affords some valuable insights into the feminist purpose and direction engendered through her leadership; as observed by inaugural council member Melinda Tynan in the 2009 tribute issue of ACWAP's journal:

Arguably many of the achievements of the Australasian Council of Women and Policing (ACWAP) would not have happened had Christine Nixon not been involved since its inception. During the Council's early developmental stages there was certainly no clear path forward. The simple act of bringing women police together from around Australia was initially regarded as a radical (if not downright dangerous) notion by a number of significant actors in the federal criminal justice arena, and was certainly, initially, hotly contested by several of the then Australian Commissioners of Police. (Tynan, 6)

In 2000, ACWAP launched the first edition of it publication, Fitting in or Standing Out? The intent of this somewhat radical booklet is to provide a realistic resource guide for women entering the policing profession. The booklet fulfilled its original purpose in a number of positive ways: as a handy, short guide for recruitment centres to give to prospective recruits; as a source of information for students considering career choices while still at school; and as a reference tool for those already in a job who were looking for a career change. The original guide was also used by ACWAP members as a way of promoting women in policing at conferences, workshops and forums. A new edition (launched in 2009 and updated again in 2010) fulfils the same purpose as the original, in that it helps women choosing a career to decide if policing might be the job for them. In reviewing the changes between the two editions of this publication, ACWAP recognised that the scenario for women in policing in 2010 was a little more positive than in 2000; in fact, just a short decade ago women in policing were not nearly as visible as they are now. The participation rate for women in policing across Australia in 1999 was cited in the first edition as ranging from 11 per cent to 21 per cent, with the percentage of women in management roles at just 2.1 per cent; by 2007, the number of women in policing had increased to 31.4 per cent and has plateaued; in 2012, 32.5 per cent of police officers in Australia were women (SCRGSP 2013). There is no recent reliable data on the number of women in management positions in policing (Fleming & Prenzler).

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that what has changed over the last decade is that women in policing- with the support of many of their male colleagues- are less likely than before to put up with inappropriate, offensive and/or bullying behaviours from their colleagues in the workplace. Importantly, the majority of policing jurisdictions now have in place policies and guidelines designed to prevent, redress and eliminate these unlawful behaviours; associated with these changes is a raft of other, family-friendly, flexible workplace practices designed to ensure that both men and women have more options than before with regard to how they might choose to integrate a career in policing with having a family.

Another positive change noted was the growth and impact of a range of women's advisory networks within policing jurisdictions; these are important contacts for women considering entering the policing profession, and the later edition of Fitting in or Standing Out? Included updated contact details for these important local networks as well as websites for their national and international counterparts. Typically, women who join these organisations within policing are similar to those who volunteer their services for ACWAP: they perceive they have a role as advocates for women and policing.

In its structure and form, ACWAP presents a feminist identity that is the antithesis of the 'boys' clubs': an unambiguous, welcoming space for women, and those men who support them. The annual excellence awards have become a key feature of the group's more formal feminist support network activities. In showcasing what its members consider to be leadership exemplars, ACWAP pays tribute to and rewards those 'tempered radicals' within policing whose 'passionate concern (Meyerson & Scully, 589) might otherwise be unrecognised. Jurisdictions nominate their exemplars, selecting from a growing number of award categories, some of which are named in tribute to women police who have died on the job. These categories include the Bev Lawson and the Audrey Fagan Awards (see below).

One of the challenges of the awards process is to ensure that nominations are not filtered through the police hierarchy; it is crucial to the feminist intent of the awards process that winners represent the wide diversity of women in policing. The short profiles that follow are indicative of this diversity:

The inaugural Bev Lawson Memorial Award was given to Christine Nixon (then at NSW Police) in recognition of the leadership and responsibility she had undertaken in her role with ACWAP and 'as a friend and mentor to other women'.

Two women referred to in their citations as 'Lisa' and 'Rebecca' inspired ACWAP to institute awards for Bravery: members of the awards committee recognised how much courage it takes for women in policing to name and shame male colleagues who engage in sexual harassment. In giving these bravery awards ACWAP claimed a space that is more usually associated with stereotypical notions of male bravery.

In 1999, Superintendent Anne McDonald won the ACWAP Award for the Most Outstanding Leader. She was nominated by her colleagues at Queensland Police Service 'for seeking to make a difference in the world, for her integrity and for "never giving up"'. Through her 'charismatic and passionate' approach, Superintendent McDonald significantly changed how the Queensland Police Service approaches its investigation of sexual crimes, by moving the organisation to a more proactive approach in which police engage with the media to raise the profile of sexual assault. She has also been the champion for many of her female colleagues in the Queensland Police Service.

Wendy Steendam was the recipient of the council's 2006 Award for 'Excellence in Policing for Women Initiative'. Wendy was recognised for the integral role she played in implementing a review of the response by Victoria Police to violence against women and, in particular, in the establishment of a Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence. Respected for her leadership and for how she negotiates with stakeholders, Wendy has had a significant impact on improving responses by the Victoria Police to family violence, and for improving access for women to the justice system.

In the same year, Kathy Rynders from Queensland Police Service received the award for Most Outstanding Female Leader. Her nomination quoted her as saying: 'too many women try to change to fit into the male culture'. She is known as someone who has negotiated policing in her own way and whose dynamic and innovative leadership style throughout her distinguished policing career has made a real difference to how women are policed. Kathy was well respected for how she worked collaboratively with the community, showing that policing is about providing a service and being a partner with the community, not a force attempting to control a community.

In 2008, the inaugural Audrey Fagan Award was presented to Inspector Noreen O'Rourke (Western Australia Police) for her 'outstanding leadership for women and their working conditions'. Known for her 'integrity, determination and resilience', Inspector O'Rourke was able to 'rock the organisational boat' through her involvement in two key platforms: as the Coordinator of the Women's Advisory Network and in her formal Police Union role.


There is still much to be done to achieve a critical mass (25-30 per cent) of women at all middle to senior ranks in policing in Australia. As Fleming and Prenzler conclude in their 2010 study on the statistical profiles of Australasian policing jurisdictions, the outlook is still not that positive for women achieving a critical mass at senior leadership levels within policing. They suggest that with the current rate of recruitment 'stuck at one-third, and possibly declining, and high resignation rates, the proportion of women in Australian policing should peak at one-third around 2020 and then decline' (Fleming & Prenzler, 36). Further, the examination of available data leads these authors to conclude 'there is a prima facie case for affirmative action' (36). ACWAP will continue with its own affirmative action strategy in acknowledging, supporting, promoting and empowering women; however, engaging more men in positions of power in actively changing masculinist notions of leadership will be crucial to achieving contemporary policing organisations where decision-making that impacts on the whole community is shared between men and (a critical mass of) women leaders.

Additional sources: Tynan M.(2001), 'Media Release: Australia's First Female Police Commissioner: Christine Nixon'.

Published Resources


  • Gerber, G.L., Women and Men Police Officers: Status, Gender, and Personality, Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, United States of America, 2001. Details
  • Heidensohn, F., Women in Control? The Role of Women in Law Enforcement, Clarendon Press, Oxford, England, 1992. Details
  • Silvestri, M., Women in Charge. Policing, Gender and Leadership, Willan, Cullumpton, Devon, 2003. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, Doing Leadership Differently: Gender, Power and Sexuality in a Changing Business Culture, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, Leadership for the Disillusioned: Moving Beyond Myths and Heroes to Leading that Liberates, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 2007. Details

Book Sections

  • Brown, J., Hazenburg, A. & Ormiston, C., 'Policewomen: An International Comparison', in Mawby, R.I. (ed.), Policing Across the World. Issues for the Twenty-first Century, UCL Press, London, England, 1999. Details

Journal Articles

  • Acker, J., 'Hierarchy, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations', Gender and Society, vol. 4, no. 2, 1990, pp. 139 - 158. Details
  • Fleming, J. and Prenzler T., 'Gender Equity in Australian and New Zealand Policing: A Five Year Review 2003-2008', The Journal for Women and Policing, vol. 27, Summer, 2011, pp. 30-6. Details
  • Kolb, D. M. & Merrill-Sands, D., 'Waiting for Outcomes: Anchoring a Dual Agenda for Change to Cultural Assumptions', Women in Management Review, vol. 14, 1999, pp. 194-202. Details
  • Meyerson, D. & Scully, M., 'Tempered Radicalism and the Politics of Ambivalence and Change', Organization Science, vol. 6, 1995, pp. 585-600. Details
  • Meyerson, D.E. & Fletcher, J.K., 'A Modest Manifesto for Shattering the Glass Ceiling', Harvard Business Review, January-February, 2000, pp. 127-36. Details
  • Prenzler, T. & Hayes, H., 'Measuring Progress in Gender Equity in Australian Policing', Current Issues in Criminal Justice, vol. 11, 2000, pp. 20-38. Details
  • Sinclair, A., 'The Leadership of Christine Nixon', The Journal for Women and Policing, vol. 24, Winter, 2009, pp. 7-11. Details
  • Tynan, Melinda, '"The Turtle Only Makes Progress by Sticking his Neck Out": The Wit and Wisdom of Christine Nixon', The Journal for Women and Policing, vol. 24, Winter, 2009, p. 6. Details
  • West, C. & Zimmerman, D.H., 'Doing Gender', Gender and Society, vol. 1, 1987, pp. 125-51. Details


  • Harwood, S., 'Change: An Immodest Manifesto for Intervening in Masculinist Organisations', PhD thesis, The University of Western Australia, 2006. Details

Online Resources