Women police tell of sexism in force

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The Independent Online
SOME OF the country's most senior women police officers have spoken out about sexist and discriminatory treatment by male colleagues, particularly against female officers with children.

The officers, including one of the country's two women chief constables, reveal that some female colleagues keep their pregnancy a secret from their promotion boards for fear that their careers could be blighted with such a disclosure.

They also disclose that some male officers have told them that they should not be working mothers.

The comments come as a growing number of women officers are taking legal action against their forces for sexual discrimination and harassment.

At the same time, there are a record number of women being appointed to the most senior jobs, although only two of the 51 forces in Britain are run by a woman. There are 10 women among the 230 most senior police ranks in Britain.

Elizabeth Neville, who was appointed the Chief Constable of Wiltshire last year, told Policing Today magazine that on her first day back to work as an inspector after giving birth to her first child in 1984, her chief superintendent said: "I think what you're doing is wrong, [but] I suppose it's none of my business."

After Mrs Neville made it clear it wasn't, he agreed not to mention it again. A year later, she approached her promotion board for the job of chief inspector, but did not declare she was pregnant for fear that it would be used against her. After being promoted she told the chairman of the board who said: "You've taken someone else's place."

She added: "Some senior officers were openly unhappy about me having young children at home. The management of pregnancy wasn't tackled within the organisation."

Mrs Neville said that while the situation has improved there is still a lack of confidence among pregnant officers to declare their pregnancy.

She gave the example of a sergeant who last year kept her pregnancy a secret for fear it might affect her promotion chances.

"Although there have been extensive policy changes, there still is not the confidence of the staff in the objectivity of its implementation," she said.

Commander Suzanna Becks of the Metropolitan Police, also speaking to the magazine, said she experienced similar attitudes when she was a chief inspector.

"Certain individuals were open about their prejudice against me working and having children," she said.

Acting Assistant Commissioner Judy Davison, of the City of London Police, believes research is needed to examine why so few women work in the traffic or armed response sections.

"Family responsibilities, encouragement, personal choice and childcare may all be inhibiting factors," she said.

On the more general issue of sexist attitudes in the police Mrs Neville said she has encountered few problems since becoming a chief officer, except some people who have not meet her before "often mistake me for the wife of the chief constable".

Cdr Davison said she has had to suffer comment in the past such as "even though she is a woman ..." and has been "cold shouldered" by some male colleagues at meeting when she gave them instructions.

While praising her immediate colleagues she was critical of some of the most senior police ranks who "still do not adhere to fair treatment principles and have used gender specific language and shown bad behaviour".

On a more positive side, Assistant Chief Constable Maria Wallis, of Sussex Police, said that she had many positive experiences during her career in the service.

Commander Carole Howlett, of the Metropolitan Police, also argued that developments such as a more objective selection process had been among recent improvements made to the Police Service.

The issue of sexism in the police was highlighted in a 1995 Inspectorate of Constabulary report which stated that discriminatory language and behaviour still continues and there was a "perceived lack of top level commitment to equal opportunities".

Earlier this year, the Inspectorate, in one of its most damning reports in recent times, severely criticised the treatment of women officers at the North Yorkshire force, whose chief constable was forced to resign in January following his handling of a sexual harassment case.

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