Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Climbing ranks

Female police officers sign of gains in workplace equality

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It's that time of the year and another opportunity to celebrate International Women's Day, March 8. You know, it still amazes me that women were once shut out from public life; we couldn't vote, we were barred from advanced education and we couldn't enter into some professions such as medicine. In some provinces, women couldn't hold property and, in fact, women were not even defined as persons. Thanks to the hard work of a determined rights advocate named Nellie McClung, women in Manitoba gained the vote as early as 1916 while women in the rest of Canada had to wait four more years.

Where are we today? Well, women are finally moving into leadership roles as heads of state: in fact, we now have six female provincial premiers. And while Bertha Wilson was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1982, now we have at least twelve women appointed as judges to the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench.

But what about women and policing? Societal views in the early 1900s suggested that the basic female qualities would be a general impediment to effective police work. As a result, women were limited to roles more in line with social work such as the young offenders or crime prevention sectors while street patrol was still considered a man's job.

In Manitoba, as early as 1916, local groups lobbied for a female officer and Mary Dunn was finally appointed as the first official woman police constable. However, as with other police services of the time, Dunn was assigned to the morality department with her duties being described as "aiding women in distress" and working with "wayward children."

As well, Dunn was not issued a uniform or equipment and was only allowed to work within the police station building itself. Her pay was below that of the most junior male officer recruit. Then, from 1916 to 1976, no female officer was allowed to attain the rank of first-class constable.

Over time, empirical research, experience and common sense quickly proved that women were just as competent as men, providing they had the appropriate training, experience and supervision. So, it's hard to believe today that women were considered too emotionally unstable, lacked confidence in handling conflict or that men and women simply couldn't work together because of the potential of sexual attraction. Thankfully, those outdated views are now somewhat behind us and women are continuing to take their rightful place in police service, although with only 221 female officers currently in the City of Winnipeg Police Service, there is obviously still room for improvement.

Yet, these women officers love their job and are a model for women in policing. Sgt. Sandra Martin for instance, is a 19-year police veteran and the Western and Northern Canada regional representative for the International Association of Women Police. Martin, currently a supervisor of a general patrol shift, has had an exciting career including patrol, collision investigation, commercial crime and working in the vulnerable person's unit.

As a young woman officer, Martin indicates that many of the stereotypes and myths about the capability of women are simply no longer applicable.

On the other hand, she suggests that the blended skills resulting from men and women working together greatly improves the ability to serve the public and to deal with the many crisis incidents they encounter.

As well, Martin also suggests that while working shifts is indeed a workplace challenge, societal views of male involvement in child rearing has helped women officers to more effectively manage these family issues.

On the other hand, Patrol Sgt. Jennifer McKinnon, a 16-year police service veteran, has had the opportunity to use her background in justice and criminology and a personal interest in the sciences to specialize in forensics. Now, after years of intensive training, McKinnon has become well-known in the forensics field and her expert testimony in court has gained the respect of local criminal lawyers. And although the long hours required of a forensics specialist isn't as glamourous as it might appear on television, McKinnon wouldn't trade her role for anything.

Both women are extremely happy with police service as their chosen career. In particular, because there are so many varied job roles that an individual can move to. There is opportunity for generalists and specialists but no matter what, the job is always challenging, and as an officer, you are always learning and growing.

I'm very proud to learn that our own local police service, as well as other Canadian law enforcement agencies, is being recognized for a superior calibre of police officer training as well as the role that women today are playing within the profession.

For instance, currently Martin is leading a team of service volunteers from the Winnipeg, Brandon and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to bring the International Association of Women Police 2014 conference to Winnipeg. This prestigious international association was founded in 1915 and represents women in the field of criminal justice in over 60 countries worldwide. The association's mission is to strengthen and unite women in law enforcement and it does so through mentoring, networking, a quarterly magazine and training and development through an international conference.

After significant effort, planning and presentations, Manitoba's group of police women volunteers was successful in attracting the prestigious international conference for 2014 to Winnipeg. Conference planners anticipate that over 600 attendees from all over the world will descend into our city to attend this showpiece event. Participants will learn from a mix of international and local keynote speakers, attend multiple workshop sessions, network and bask in the light and attention of the annual international award winners.

Nellie McClung, her colleagues in government and those early pioneer female police officers helped to break the many career barriers experienced by women. Today, both women and law enforcement in general are benefiting from this change as the opportunity to have a challenging career in the police service is open to anyone.

To help support this year long celebration and kick off the journey toward the international conference, the local police women's group is hosting a fashion show that will exhibit women's uniforms throughout the years. What a great way to celebrate International Women's Day.

Source: Three Decades of Women in Policing, A Literature Review, Marcel-Eugene LeBeuf, PhD, Canadian Police College, 1996., History of the Winnipeg Police, Part 2, Early 1900's, Jack Templeman, nd. Interviews with Sandra Martin and Jennifer McKinnon.

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 H1

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