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FCXXXX10.1177/1557085118763104Feminist CriminologyMorabito and Shelley
Constrained Agency Theory
and Leadership: A New
Perspective to Understand
How Female Police Officers
Overcome the Structural
and Social Impediments to
Feminist Criminology
2018, Vol. 13(3) 287­–308
© The Author(s) 2018
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1557085118763104
Melissa S. Morabito1 and Tara O’Connor Shelley2
Substantial research has examined both the barriers preventing women from
entering and flourishing in policing and the coping mechanisms used to adapt to the
gendered institution of policing. However, there is scant research that examines the
mechanisms by which some women successfully navigate the police bureaucracy.
Drawing from in-depth, semi-structured interviews of 47 female officers from 30
law enforcement agencies across seven states, we apply Constrained Agency Theory
as a means to identify and understand how women capitalize on conditions and
opportunities to advance and/or gain promotion in gendered organizations. The
purpose of our research is to explore the efficacy of this theoretical framework
for the study of women in policing. Results suggest that Constrained Agency
Theory offers a promising way of understanding how female officers experience and
utilize opportunities and conditions for advancement across a variety of agencies,
generations, and organizational cultures.
policing, women, women as professionals in the CJS, constrained agency, promotion,
gender, law enforcement
1University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA
2Tarleton State University, Stephenville, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Tara O’Connor Shelley, Institute for Criminal Justice Leadership and Public Policy, Institute on Violence
Against Women and Human Trafficking, School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies,
Tarleton State University, 6777 Camp Bowie Blvd., Suite 455, Stephenville, TX 76402-0000, USA.
Email: Shelley@Tarleton.Edu
Feminist Criminology 13(3)
Scholars recognize that the percentage of women in police organizations is not representative of the communities they serve (Morabito & Shelley, 2015). Decades of gender discrimination have stymied the robust presence of women in leadership positions
in American policing. Moreover, historic patterns of exclusion have led to problems of
attrition whereby women in frontline positions either opt out of the promotion process
or leave policing altogether before they can advance to the upper echelons—a trend
referred to as a leaking pipeline (Bailyn, 2003).
Both the small numbers of women in policing and the smaller numbers of women
in leadership positions exemplify the leaking pipeline. In 1972, women comprised as
little as 2% of sworn officers, and current estimates indicate that women comprise
only 11.3% of all police officers (Hickman & Reeves, 2006). The employment data
further indicate that the hiring and retention of women has stalled (Lonsway et al.,
2002), which greatly reduces the likelihood of women advancing through the ranks. In
2001,1 women comprised 7.3% of top command positions in large agencies and only
3.8% in smaller agencies (Lonsway et al., 2002). Of central concern is the fact that
more than half of all police agencies that responded to the survey reported that no
women held high-level positions (Lonsway et al., 2002). These employment trends
suggest the presence of systemic social and institutional barriers that negatively affect
the retention and advancement of women in policing.
Although valuable scholarship explores how women cope in this male-dominated
field (Martin, 1979; Rabe-Hemp, 2008b), little is known about how women successfully2 navigate the gendered police hierarchy (e.g., Acker, 1990) to access the formal
(e.g., training) and informal opportunities (e.g., mentorship) that are necessary to earn
promotion, advancement, and status. Because these opportunities are often hidden or
outright denied to female officers, it is worthwhile to learn from those who were able
to access and capitalize on these opportunities even though the odds were stacked
against them. The dominant model for “how to promote” in policing is one whereby
an officer studies, works hard on patrol, gains notice from commanding or senior officers, and eventually advances to promotion due to hard work, individual efforts, and
social networking through unofficial channels.3 In reality, this narrative is highly gendered whereby male officers benefit from the patriarchy of the traditional police organization. Male officers are inherently believed to be tough enough to do the hard work,
are considered to be good colleagues and partners, and have easy access to mentors
due to selective priming practices of senior male officers (Balkin, 1988; Franklin,
2007). These beliefs and practices constrain the opportunities of female officers who
then have to work harder to access these opportunities, often due to unfair assumptions
about limited capacity and/or diminished capacity (Shelley, Morabito, & TobinGurley, 2011). Thus, the existing narrative for advancement in policing does not adequately explain the totality of the experiences of the female officers who seek to be
Constrained Agency Theory (CAT), (Herndl & Licona, 2007) provides a potential
framework to increase our understanding of the experiences of female officers because
it can elucidate the conditions and opportunities necessary for advancement within
police agencies. Prior research indicates the theory is relevant for numerous workplaces
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including the political arena (Blair et al., 2013) and farming (Wolford, 2011). The current research seeks to (a) explore the conditions and opportunities for advancement and
promotion, and (b) illustrate the utility of CAT in understanding the experiences of
women in police agencies.
Literature Review
In her book, Breaking the Brass Ceiling: Women Police Chiefs and Their Paths to the
Top, Schulz (2004) collected the stories of 96 women who achieved command positions in policing. She examined their paths to success and discussed their struggles to
achieve promotion and advance in a male-dominated organization. All of the subjects
selected and interviewed by Schulz had achieved a promotion in their police organization. Although Schulz has singlehandedly increased our knowledge about the experiences and histories of female chiefs in the United States, this analysis does not consider
the experiences of those women who strive for promotion but are unable to achieve it
or who self-exclude from the process due to impediments associated with gendered
police organizations or for other personal reasons.
The bulk of research on women in policing has attempted to tease out why women
do not rise through the ranks of police organizations as easily as their male peers do.
The existing research points to both internal and external constraints that deter female
officers from advancement. In his study of a large Midwestern police department,
Whetstone (2001) found that the majority of qualified female officers did not engage
in the promotion process at all. Rather, they removed themselves from consideration
for promotion. He noted that female officers largely did not take the promotional exam
because of child care concerns (Whetstone, 2001), as a promotion often results in a
new shift assignment that might be difficult to mesh with family responsibilities.
Women must balance the new responsibilities associated with a promotion with their
already heavy domestic workload without institutional support (Agocs, Langan, &
Sanders, 2015; Schulze, 2010). Another reason to eschew promotion is due to concerns associated with token status in management positions. Archbold and Schulz
(2008) found that male supervisors were advising female officers to seek promotion
solely because they were women, not because they could be effective leaders. As a
result, many female officers elected not to take promotional exams and remain in
patrol to avoid negative attention within the agency.
There are other explanations as well. Opportunities for promotion are often limited
for women within police agencies. Women can be confined within “glass walls”
(Sneed, 2007) in organizations—limited to positions that directly deal with women
and children in the community. When promoted, female sworn officers may serve as
sexual assault investigators, as child abuse liaisons, or on human trafficking task
forces. These are not the coveted police positions that lead to advancement and power
(i.e., special weapons and tactics [SWAT], homicide, and gangs) but rather result in a
permanent freeze where women spend their entire careers in the same role, albeit an
important and essential one. As a result, the lack of diverse opportunities and experiences within the organization likely curtail advancement for many female officers. In
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larger civil service agencies, merit and standardized testing processes control promotions to the point of captain but after the rank of captain, the promotion of command
staff often occurs at the pleasure of the chief (Van Maanen, 1984).
Women have also faced challenges from their male colleagues when trying to
advance in policing (Martin, 1978, 1979, 1989). Male officers have long resisted
women joining police organizations, and the work of female officers has been devalued (Balkin, 1988; Franklin, 2007; Herbert, 2001; Prokos & Padavic, 2002). Resistance
increased when policewomen shifted from stereotypically feminine duties involving
children to more traditional police responsibilities—women were even required to
patrol in skirts and carry their guns in hidden bags to appear ladylike (Franklin, 2007;
Heidensohn, 1992).
In the 1970s, as women increasingly entered traditional police positions, performance studies and community relations surveys assessed their contributions (Hunt,
1990). This research revealed that women performed policing duties as well as their
male counterparts (see Balkin, 1988; Schulz, 1995) and that female officers were publicly regarded as equally capable and competent in carrying out police functions (see
Balkin, 1988). In addition, women were found to be better communicators and more
likely to dissolve and diffuse potentially volatile situations through communication as
opposed to responding with violence.
Despite the aptitude that women display for policing, a relatively small percentage
of female officers secure promotions (Lonsway et al., 2002). There may be several
reasons for this trend. Women may self-select out of the process entirely due to beliefs
about their own performance, or because of structural impediments and their experiences as tokens in policing. Evidence suggests that female officers believe that they
are as good as male police officers—or rather, that they are better at more “feminized
aspects of policing” (Rabe-Hemp, 2009).
Rabe-Hemp (2008b) provides a foundation for understanding token experiences
and the coping mechanisms utilized by female officers to gain acceptance in maledominated organizations. Specifically, she documented several coping mechanisms,
including accepting segregation into the stereotypically feminine, paperwork-dominated aspects of the job (Garcia, 2003), increasing their education, or connecting with
others outside of policing. These coping mechanisms are crucial to understanding how
women address their token status within gendered organizations. They are presented,
however, as individual behaviors—reactions to the police organization and specific
circumstances. Coping mechanisms may work under some conditions but are less
effective in others—even for the same officer at different points in her career. We seek
to understand how women leverage these types of coping mechanisms with conditions
and opportunities for promotion in this challenging environment. CAT provides a
frame work from which we explore how women police officers navigate their careers.
Theoretical Foundation
CAT stems from rhetorical and poststructuralist theory (Herndl & Licona, 2007). While
it is not specifically a feminist theory, we examine its usefulness in understanding the
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experiences of women in policing. CAT is a persuasive theory of how power operates
and how social change (or the reaffirmation of the status quo) happens. Other scholars
draw from this theory to explain the experiences of women in male-dominated arenas.
For example, researchers apply CAT to explain how women traverse the political workplace (Blair et al., 2013) and farming (Wolford, 2011). It has also been used to enhance
understanding of the adoption and implementation of policies that affect women, such
as marriage and maternity policies (Petersen & Moeller, 2016) or infant-feeding recommendations (Koerber, 2013).
Agency is a crucial part of the theory. Agency becomes a question of how women can
make their voices heard and achieve political legitimacy so that they can reconstitute
their public images to obtain influence. Herndl and Licona (2007, p. 137) argue that
agency is not a fixed individual attribute or power but rather something that is variable
over time with “people and groups positioned differently within it” (see Bordo, 1998). In
other words, agency is not something an individual can have, gain, or lose; it consists of
contextualized opportunities for action. By operationalizing agency in this way, Herndl
and Licona (2007) change how agency is related to authority. Authority in policing
resides with command staff and particularly with the chief—the decision makers within the
organization, most often White men (Jordan, Fridell, Faggiani, & Kubu, 2009). Herndl
and Licona maintain that authority can act as a “potential restraint and potential resource
to agency” though it tends to constrain agency more often than it offers resources, particularly in institutionalized settings. For example, preventing female officers from joining special units (or failing to encourage them to join) is an exercise of authority that
restrains them from developing the portfolio necessary for promotion. Conversely, clearing barriers to these special assignments can be an authoritative resource to agency.
A central idea of CAT is that change is not possible unless individuals take advantage of “slippage” or the “intersection” between agency and authority that occurs in
space and time. Herndl and Licona (2007) refer to these as “kairotic moments”—those
where marginalized populations can experience opportune moments (i.e., Kairos) that
“allow subjects to act to change or reproduce social, institutional, and discursive practices” (p. 134). The slippage or intersection between authority and agentive opportunities can then constrain while also open possibilities. This is the crux of CAT because
people occupy different agentive and authoritative spaces across time. Therefore,
while a condition or opportunity might result in the earning of a promotion for one
police officer, the exact same opportunity may be inconsequential for another officer.
The literature already established that law enforcement positions female officers differently; however, CAT suggests that the ability of female officers to obtain promotions is
dynamic and not static-opportunities change based on individual characteristics as well as
the attributes of the organization. As such, we seek to identify the conditions and opportunities that give rise to these kairotic moments that result in the advancement and legitimacy of
women in policing. More specifically, we address the following research questions:
Research Question 1: What are the conditions and opportunities that are associated with kairotic moments for women in policing over the duration of a police
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Research Question 2: How do these kairotic moments disrupt the dominant narrative in policing, change institutionalized practices that persistently exclude women,
and result in promotion?
Research Question 3: Is CAT useful for enhancing our understanding of women’s
experiences in policing?
Data and Method
We utilize a biographical approach to elicit detailed narratives from women regarding
their experiences over the span of their policing career. Forty-seven women were interviewed about their entry into the profession, their experiences as sworn police officers
(both positive and negative), and the transition to retirement, if applicable. The literature informed the development of a semistructured interview guide and focused on a
number of broad themes, including their pathways and the values that led them to
police work, their experiences in policing from the application process to their current
position or status, and their career trajectories. Although we sought to understand specific impediments or opportunities the participants experienced over the course of
their law enforcement career, we did not begin our initial research with a specific
theory in mind, preferring instead a grounded approach. Throughout the interview
process, participants had the freedom to discuss anything they felt was relevant for us
to further understand their experiences.
We used a snowball sampling approach to identify as many study participants as
possible, beginning with two state law enforcement associations: Rocky Mountain
Women in Law Enforcement and the Massachusetts Association of Women in Law
Enforcement. We sent each organization a formal letter explaining the purpose of the
study and a request to assist us in identifying women who might be interested in participating in the research. This assistance came in the form of website and newsletter
advertising, meeting announcements, and mailings. Individual contacts with members
of these agencies led to the development of a snowball sample as participants suggested friends and colleagues to be interviewed. In the end, the women in our sample
served in 30 law enforcement agencies across seven regionally diverse states
(Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia) in
various levels of law enforcement, including campus, municipal, county, and state
Respondents’ years of service ranged from 2 to 35, with a mean of 17 years.
Respondents ranged in age from 26 to 62 years, with a mean age of 46 years. They
began their career at ages between 21 and 40 years, with a mean age of 27 years. The
overwhelming majority of respondents reported patrol officer as highest rank achieved
(21 respondents) or the equivalent,4 with one trooper and two sheriff’s deputies. There
were two corporals, eight sergeants, one lieutenant, one colonel, one major, one captain, one detective, one commander, one deputy commissioner, one deputy chief, and
one chief deputy. Most notably, there were three chiefs and one interim chief in the
sample. Nine of our respondents had retired from their agencies. Respondents primarily worked for municipal agencies; however, six were employed by sheriff’s
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departments, five by university police departments, and two by state agencies. All but
three respondents identified as Caucasian, with one African American, one Asian, and
one Latina officer. Respondent information is included in Table 1. Based on this sample, we cannot speak to the applicability of our findings beyond the context of women
in our sample—something that is not unusual for research intended to further theory
development (Carbone-Lopez & Miller, 2012).
Following these recruitment efforts, we interviewed participants by phone or faceto-face depending upon the preference of the interviewee. Interviews occurred between
2009 and 2012. As these interviews involved coverage of a number of themes and a
life history of each participant, they lasted from 1 to 8 hours and were conversational
in approach. Longer interviews occurred with women who were retired (or nearing
retirement), whereas women relatively new to the profession had shorter interviews.
We recorded and transcribed each of the interviews for subsequent analysis.
The data presented here consist of excerpts from these interviews gathered from
representative quotations. We redacted all references to specific agencies, geographical locations, and any other information that might identify the participants to honor
our promise of anonymity to our participants.
Analysis Strategy
The transcripts generated from these interviews constituted the data for this article. The
coding and analysis process followed three main steps. We used a process of “open coding” on all interview transcripts to identify emerging themes and concerns. It quickly
became apparent that one of the major themes was that some women were able to navigate the promotional process whereas others were not successful, not interested, or lacked
empowerment to apply at all. At this point, we utilized a focused approach (Charmaz,
2000) based on this emerging theme, whereupon it became clear that the women in our
diverse sample were experiencing opportune moments as described by Herndl and
Licona’s (2007) CAT. Subsequently, we created a coding scheme derived from CAT that
included identification of the barriers to employment, advancement, and promotion, and
the accompanying conditions and opportunities that gave rise to these pathways for
women in our sample, the latter of which is the focus of this article. The next phase of our
process centered on the development of conceptual (“nodal”) relationships using NVivo
data analysis software, where coders read interviews for the conditions and opportunities
that emerged for kairotic moments to influence advancement and promotion.
After refining these categories, and coding interviews for conditions, opportunities, and kairotic movements, participant quotes that represented each category were
extracted (Padgett, 1998). Several analytical approaches (i.e., descriptive and analytic) were used to illuminate the conditions and opportunities that combine to create
a kairotic moment. First, we coded the types of conditions and opportunities experienced by women in policing and separated these into groups of both negative and
positive. Next, we tracked and analyzed how these kairotic moments spanned the
career trajectories of the women in the sample. We also took note of how the women
were able to disrupt exclusionary and institutionalized practices to obtain promotion
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Table 1. Respondent Demographics.
Age at which
Years of
policing (years) service
Level of
Highest rank
Some college
Interim chief
Some college
Some college
High school
Some college
Some college
Some college
Police officer
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Table 1. (continued)
Age at which
Years of
policing (years) service
Level of
Highest rank
Juris doctor
Some college
Some college
Chief deputy
Table 2. Common Conditions and Opportunities that Can Result in Kairotic Moments.
Role model
Civilian position
Female colleagues
in the academy
Family support
Television shows created
Respondents watch shows with
interest in becoming a police
female sworn officers that create the
possibility of policing.
Influenced to apply for police Women have exposure to police
officer position
officers in childhood either through
family or experience with the criminal
justice system.
Social networking opportunity Respondents worked as dispatchers,
to meet police officers
jail matrons,a or community service
officers without considering that they
and learn about the job to
could be sworn officers until they had
determine suitability
the chance to see the work up close
and assess their own readiness.
Provided credibility in
This training gave women exposure
academy, field training, and
to a similar male-dominated and
patrol work
hierarchical structure. In some ways,
it signaled to male colleagues who
would be reliable in organization as
well as the field. This experience
was near universal for female
respondents who obtained SWAT
Peer support to graduate from Female colleagues provide emotional
the academy
support in a primarily male setting but
also assisted one another in their own
areas of strength.
Freedom and encouragement Family support came from parents,
to apply for promotion with
siblings, and spouses. It affected not
accompanying shift change
only the decision to apply but also to
think about promotion.
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Table 2. (continued)
Female leader
Lawsuit filed and/
or resolved
Encourage to apply for and
earn promotion
These internal supporters helped
women decide when and what to
apply for within the agency. This
included not only promotions but also
lateral transfers and certifications that
might be beneficial for career.
Made the promotion process Female leaders gave the impression
appear fair and possible
that the process was fair and impartial
inspiring female respondents to apply.
Gave credibility to apply for
Some respondents knew people in
positions or promotions
politics or policing prior to joining
the department who could vouch
for them as people in the promotion
Increased the credentials and While education is not necessary for
skills for career advancement advancement in many agencies, it
and promotion
serves as an additional qualification
that makes it difficult for command
staff to ignore the quality of female
Cleared barriers for
In some cases, filing a lawsuit was enough
promotion and change in
to show that the female officer was
serious about improving conditions
(e.g., eliminating sexual harassment)
within the agency. In other cases,
clearing of barriers did not occur until
the lawsuit was resolved.
Note. SWAT = special weapons and tactics.
aIt was surprising to learn that this term was still used in some agencies into the 1980s.
and/or achieve prestigious assignments with increased responsibilities. Finally, we
examined whether CAT enhances the understanding of how women in policing
traverse police organizations. The findings presented below focused on common kairotic moments represented in the data.
We organize the presentation of our findings by each of our research questions and
then map the specific kairotic moments of an exemplary respondent to understand the
promotional experiences of one woman navigating a hierarchical and male-dominated
police organization.
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Conditions, Opportunities, and Kairotic Moments
Because we were interested in how women were able to navigate hierarchical police
organizations, we asked questions about not only their career paths but about other
events that were simultaneously occurring in their lives. These events, situations, or
circumstances often created the conditions needed for the respondent to apply for a
new position or opportunity within her agency. Sometimes the respondent had little
control over the “condition”—meaning that it was something that happened to her. For
other respondents, creating a particular situation was entirely her own doing. Table 2
details the most commonly cited conditions and coordinating opportunities that
allowed for kairotic moments as described by Herndl and Licona. For each condition
and subsequent opportunity, an example is included for illustration. As Table 2 suggests, conditions and opportunities that lead to kairotic moments can subsequently
disrupt the dominant patriarchal narrative of promotion and advancement in policing.
Entrance into policing.5. Four of the respondents in the sample cited exposure to television in their adolescent years as the mechanism sparking them to apply for a sworn
position. Television shows such as Charlie’s Angels, Cagney & Lacey, and Police
Woman offered a previously unseen representation of women in policing. Without
these television shows, it is possible that some of these women would have picked a
different career field and not become police officers. Media was not the only driver for
respondents to enter into policing. Previous military experience and engaging in civilian work influenced more than half of the sample to become police officers. Two
women in the sample came into policing from the military, and both reported that
those experiences were beneficial in the academy, patrol, and field training.
Twenty-six women in the sample took a number of civilian routes into policing—
making this the most common pathway into policing for our sample. Respondents
worked as dispatchers, record clerks, victim advocates, community service officers
(CSOs), animal control officers, seasonal park rangers, and one worked as a jail
matron.6 Through these nonsworn positions, respondents got a closer look at the actual
job tasks and responsibilities of sworn officers and were able to imagine themselves in
that role. By serving in a nonsworn position, some respondents learned that in fact they
did have the skills and abilities to be a police officer. One retired municipal captain
told us, “If I could be a dispatcher, I could do just about anything.” These civilian positions had the added benefit of giving some respondents credibility once they had
entered into a sworn position. One retired municipal sergeant noted,
I was luckier probably than most females . . . because I had been a dispatcher before. I
already had some of the rapport with some of them. They knew me, they knew how I
worked . . . I already had some credibility.
Graduating from the academy. Some respondents related that female colleagues and
access to female trainers7 were helpful conditions for successfully completing the
academy. They explained that having other women in their academy class was a comfort and a support. Specifically, other women offered general collegiality and practical
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information for passing through the academy. For example, one respondent told us that
a female colleague who was a lateral transfer was able to share her knowledge of firearms with recruits who had no experience with weapons. Respondents identified
female trainers as an important resource for support as they symbolized hope for a path
forward. A municipal captain who had struggled in the academy told us how a female
trainer influenced her experience:
The one that stuck out to me—she was so bold—who had the most effect on me, I believe
her rank was, I want to say captain or something at a large agency. She was just bigger
than life, professional, straightforward, and I said, “Wow!” Her presence, her attitude, her
rank, the way she held herself—I thought, “That’s what I want to be.” So she had the
greatest influence.
This female captain (and trainer) signaled that promotion was possible for women
in this agency. Meeting her while in the academy gave the respondent an inspirational
vision for her own future as a female in a male-dominated field.
Navigating the promotional process. To successfully obtain a promotion within a police
agency, the opportunity must first be available—meaning that there must be an opening. Opportunity for advancement even when a position is open is not always possible, however, without optimum conditions in place. Respondents noted a number of
conditions that helped create the kairotic moment necessary for promotion. Most
often, our respondents reported that family support, a female chief or role model,
mentorship, and previous connections were positive conditions that led to the creation of this moment.
Almost all respondents noted that family support was crucial in their decision to
apply for and accept promotion. This translated into support from parents, siblings,
and spouses. Respondents told us about parents shining their uniform shoes or driving
them to work for difficult shifts. This support signaled to respondents that their families believed that they could be successful. Support from partners or spouses, however,
emerged as a condition more crucial for women to seize opportunities for promotion,
as many respondents who successfully promoted told us that they were encouraged to
study for exams and to apply for available promotions. For women with children, support from a partner or spouse was particularly central to the decision to apply for promotion. Promotions are usually accompanied by a shift change (most often to
graveyard), and each move resulted in the need for new child care arrangements and
renegotiating their household duties with their spouse or partner. This support is not
always easy to come by and is even trickier when young children are involved, given
the gendered division of labor in the home historically (Hochschild, 1989) that persists
even today (Horne, Johnson, Galambos, & Krahn, 2017). One municipal patrol officer
who was at the top of the list for promotion to sergeant told us about the difficulty of
arranging child care:
We actually went through a period when I was first hired where we transferred my son in
the parking lot of where [my husband] worked. He was working days, I was working
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nights and swings, and we’d transfer the car seat and the baby in the middle of the parking
lot. I think it was good that he was not in law enforcement, because I think that helped
keeping everything more stable with my kids as they were going through school and
everything, as opposed to all of us working shifts.
Linking up with a mentor is a condition that can also create that kairotic moment
for advancement or promotion. As one retired municipal colonel explained,
Now, we had a retired female major in our agency. She had been retired for some time.
That was kind of an interesting history, because her style was very different. She was very
bombastic and out there. I think to her credit, and to the credit of many of the gals of that
time, they had to fight through so much stuff, it was just outrageous. She just wasn’t
playing any more. She would just go in and open the door and bust into their meetings
and say, “What the hell’s the matter with you guys?”
This female major served as a mentor to the respondent even after retirement. More
importantly, she blazed the path to advancement for others and continued to help other
women in the agency after she retired. Her goodwill extended to women with whom
she had never worked.
Other respondents waited a long time for the right environment or mentor to even
test for promotion. For example, one respondent waited 17 years before taking the
sergeant’s exam because the previous chief told her that he would never promote her.
She did not feel it was worth the effort until there was a leadership change that resulted
in a female chief. She reported,
I actually just got promoted to sergeant last year, and that is because, well, I think it is
because we had a female police chief for the first time in my 18 years, and I got in the top
three after I took the sergeant’s exam, and basically she’s the one who promoted me,
where the other officers, the other male officers, were like, “No, we wouldn’t pick her, we
would skip her and go to somebody else.” But they didn’t have any reasoning for not
picking me besides, you know—I’m pretty strong-minded, and strong-willed, and I’ve
been there 18 years, so I don’t let these guys kind of push me around. So I got promoted
to sergeant, which was quite a shock to some people. Some of my command officers had
told me, “Yeah, as long as I work here, you’ll never be a sergeant.” So I took full
advantage of our new female chief coming in. I took, like, a month off work and studied
for the sergeant’s exam and got in the top three.
Interestingly, though female mentorship was a powerful condition for advancement,
many respondents reported receiving mentorship from senior male officers who provided them with a sense of inclusion, assisted in addressing resistance from other male
colleagues, and encouraged them to resist other institutional constraints. (See the section “A Kairotic Map” for an example of how a senior male mentor can use authority in
a resourceful manner to help remove barriers for promotion for female officers.)
In an effort to advance, many of our respondents furthered their education by either
completing a bachelor’s degree or obtaining a master’s degree. Many viewed the
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opportunity to pursue higher education as an important catalyst for promotion particularly as respondents reported impediments in accessing specialized training due to
agency budget limitations and/or blocked access due to their gender. By obtaining a
degree, respondents were able to tap into knowledge that assisted them in their jobs
and made them more viable candidates for promotion to higher ranked positions. For
example, one respondent shared that the opportunities provided during her graduate
education assisted her to take leadership in the development of several community
engagement programs. Another respondent, a retired municipal chief, explained, “I’m
the only one that’s got a master’s degree, I’m writing, I’m teaching, I’m publishing . . .
and you can’t ignore that.” Because she was the only officer at her rank (throughout
her career) to have an advanced degree, it was one more qualification that the chief had
to consider when making decisions about promotion and advancement. Education then
represents an important condition in advancement for policewomen as it is an avenue
of opportunity they can pursue that makes it more difficult for gendered institutions to
overlook them.
Finally, another condition that emerged from the interviews was the use of lawsuits. Four of the respondents filed lawsuits against their departments in response to
either unfair treatment or unlawful practices. One respondent, a municipal patrol officer who was presently studying for the sergeant’s exam, had a police chief tell her to
lose weight—the only one in her department given that directive. She won her lawsuit. She related, “We won $650,000 for the lawsuit, which was the largest payout for
a sex discrimination case at that time.” Surprisingly, the majority of respondents who
had filed lawsuits remained as police officers in their same department following the
resolution of their lawsuit. These women filed lawsuits to improve conditions in their
department and remained to do the work after the resolution, with two promoting and
one actively seeking promotion at the time of the interview. This same respondent
told us:
[the chief] had no choice in the matter, he was ordered by the mayor at that point [to stop
discussing anyone’s weight]. But he, you know, he was always right there in the
background the whole time, and he still is, he’s still there. But, I mean, I grew around that
and . . . I became the secretary on the union, and I did it mainly because I sat right across
from him every single meeting, and I just sat there and stared at him at every meeting.
And it was kind of like my way of making him uncomfortable.
This respondent stayed and improved not only her own circumstances but also
those of all the other men and women in her agency.
A “Kairotic” Map
To examine how kairotic moments can disrupt the dominant narrative in policing,
change institutionalized practices that persistently exclude women, and result in
advancement to promotion, we mapped out the career experiences of one of our
respondents, who rose to the rank of interim chief. We chose to map this particular
respondent because (a) she both desired and achieved promotion, (b) her career
Morabito and Shelley
Figure 1. Kairotic map.
exemplified many of the kairotic moments described by other women in the sample,
and (c) her experiences exemplify key propositions of CAT. Specifically, her narrative
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challenges the very individualistic outlook that can overlook how people’s ability to
agentively seek and obtain promotion may be dependent on specific conditions and
opportunities that are variable over the life course of a career.
As shown in Figure 1, Respondent A had military experience, which gave her
insight into the hierarchical structure and the physicality of police work. She prepared
for the academy and already believed that she could handle the job tasks and responsibilities of policing. She found an agency with job openings, was hired, and successfully completed the academy. Her field training was limited in duration and structure,
and she was soon out on patrol as was typical at the time. During field training and
patrol, a commanding officer sexually harassed her but she persevered with the help of
parents and friends. She soon divorced her husband, who was unsupportive of her
career as a police officer. She later remarried and was promoted to sergeant. She said
of her second husband,
I probably would never have survived a career in policing except that I married another
guy who I had also known in the military. He and I met again after about a decade and hit
it off and we married. I guess we’re married 28 years now, and he is the whole reason I
survived my career in policing.
Combined with her own qualifications and an opening for sergeant, her spouse’s
encouragement and sharing of domestic responsibilities helped create a kairotic
moment that allowed for her promotion.
Respondent A and her husband decided they wanted to have a family. At the
time, there were no federal pregnancy protections, so when she was moved to an
inside position in operations where a uniform was not required, she used the opportunity to have two children. She reported, “It was a three-year assignment, so I had
two babies while I was inside, but I came back to work two weeks after each baby.”
She did not have to worry about her uniform not fitting or figuring out when she
should come off the street. There was no need to make those decisions in this
assignment. For the respondent, it was the ideal condition/time to have her two
children—with minimal repercussion on her chances for promotion or advancement in the future. Even with this seemingly ideal opportunity, she still felt pressured to come back to work immediately, telling us, “I was on a list for promotion
and they said, ‘Well, obviously you’re not very serious if you’re going about having
babies.’” She had to work around sexist beliefs about motherhood and policing.
Though inexcusable, the sexism she experienced caused her to view the assignment
as an “opportunity” to reproduce when it would have the least impact on her career
and was presumably less noticeable to male colleagues working in the field.
Although the respondent was constrained by sexism, she used the experience to
fulfill professional and personal goals. This experience links directly to a key tenet
of CAT—that the slippage or intersection between authority and agentive opportunities can constrain while also opening possibilities.
After nine years in rank as sergeant and passed over for promotion three times,
Respondent A sued the department and the jurisdiction for discrimination in the
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promotion process. After consulting with her spouse and female command staff from
other agencies, she realized her agency was engaged in discriminatory and unfair labor
practices because she was female and not because she lacked the qualifications required
for the position. She told us, “I had come to terms with the fact that I was just going to
blow my career up, is what I thought. . . . I didn’t think anything good was going to
come of it.” She pursued the lawsuit even though she felt that it would hurt her career.
She was interested in helping those who came after her and righting a wrong.
There was considerable hostility in the agency about her lawsuit:
A high-ranking major put Halloween posters up with my name as the head witch, you know,
with the wart-face and everything, and I challenged the agency [about] a major doing,
taking that kind of action. He was demoted, he left. I took another chief on, so I started to
be a battering—you know, I, I just went after everybody at that point. I kind of had to.
She noted that a deputy chief supported her during this time:
For whatever reason, a deputy chief at the time really, I guess, decided he admired me. I
didn’t even know him and he basically brought me in as his aide. . . . As people would
find opportunities to insult me publically or say things to me, say something negative in
some disrespectful way, he proceeded to take action against everybody that went after
This mentor used his authority and seniority as a resource8 (rather than as a barrier)
to help this respondent navigate gendered hostility as she advanced in the agency.
Respondent A was promoted to lieutenant and then seven years later to captain.
During this time, she earned a master’s degree. After two more years, she was promoted to major and then four years later to deputy chief. She reports that at this point
the command staff knew that she was litigious, and because she tested well, they had
no choice but to promote her. Respondent A was the first female deputy chief in her
agency. Eventually she promoted to interim chief but was later demoted after the arrest
of a politically connected person in her jurisdiction; she never became permanent
chief. She retired from policing and went into the private sector.
Respondent A experienced a number of conditions previously highlighted by other
women in our sample who achieved promotion. She had the support of her spouse, she
experienced mentorship, she achieved a graduate degree, and she filed a lawsuit after
repeatedly being discriminated against during the promotion process. It is important to
note that not all female officers in our sample experience all of these conditions the
same way in the same order, and most report experiencing differing combinations of
the conditions.
The purpose of this study was to explore whether CAT can help enhance our understanding of the experiences of women in policing. To this end, we sought to identify
Feminist Criminology 13(3)
the conditions, opportunities, and “kairotic moments” experienced by our sample to
learn how they disrupted the dominant narrative in policing. Our results suggest that
CAT is valuable for enhancing our understanding of how women in policing obtain
promotion. Our findings have significant implications for both policy and practice that
move beyond increasing the presence of women in policing toward also advancing
their inclusion.
We recognize that there are additional conditions that affect all police officers:
agency compression, low turnover, and shrinking budgets. The lack of opportunity for
promotion is something that can negatively influence all police officers. There are
only so many promotion opportunities to sergeant for patrol officers and the opportunities decrease as they move further up the hierarchy. Furthermore, there are officers
who elect not to seek promotion. As Whetstone (2001) notes, not all officers are motivated by “the extrinsic rewards attendant to upward mobility.” Rather, there are patrol
officers—regardless of gender—who enjoy patrol work and are not interested in
management opportunities. These officers were also in our sample—and although the
minority, their decisions should not be ignored, as promotion is not the only way to
experience success.
Yet evidence suggests that female officers are less likely to obtain promotions (or
even try: Gau, Terrill, & Paoline, 2013) across agencies. It is unlikely that female officers are all uninterested in promotion; in fact, our research reveals that women are
actively seeking supervisory and command positions in policing. Some entered policing with the goal of promotion; others developed aspirations over the course of their
careers. This study has detailed some of the conditions and opportunities that are specific to women in policing who do want to be promoted. We emphasize that while
promotion is the end point that many officers strive to achieve, it can also be a means
or a condition in itself. The first promotion can be the most difficult to achieve. After
an officer receives the initial promotion, it can ease the transition for future promotions and change how command staff perceive them.
We wanted to tell the story of those women who successfully navigated the police
hierarchy and how they managed it. These do not represent the totality of all conditions but rather those that emerged from the respondents in the sample. We reinforce
that multiple conditions are necessary to create kairotic moments. What works for one
female officer may not be effective for another—even in the same agency. Thus, we
suggest a new narrative to highlight the conditions that support women’s promotion in
a male-dominated environment.
What are the conditions that lead to kairotic moments that result in change rather
than a reproduction of the status quo in policing? First, female officers need to believe
that they are capable and competent police officers. This belief is often associated with
the presence of supportive colleagues who will mentor and encourage them to seek out
opportunities, as well as the existence of female leaders in the organization who serve
as powerful role models. Next, family support generally, and parity in household
maintenance and childrearing more specifically, empowers female officers to seek
promotional opportunities. Finally, achieving a degree is an external resource many
Morabito and Shelley
women utilize to differentiate themselves in promotional processes that may privilege
internal agency experiences to which they have not had access. Internal reforms are
needed within police agencies (e.g., mentorship, equal access to training and special
assignments, etc.) in tandem with external reforms in society (e.g., gender roles in
parenting) to ensure that the conditions and opportunities that lead to kairotic moments
can emerge.
Future research should explore why some women experience kairotic moments and
others do not. It is highly likely that agency structure (or other characteristics such as
agency size or the proportion of women) might affect the range and/or frequency of
exposure to conditions and opportunities that lead to kairotic moments. There may be
an intersection of agency characteristics and conditions that can enhance or reduce the
effects of conditions on kairotic moments. For example, Archbold and Schulz (2008)
found that when female officers were encouraged by their male superiors to apply for
promotion, they were less likely to do so. The women in their sample were concerned
about the judgments associated with tokenism and were not interested in promoting if
others perceived them as less deserving. Our study revealed the opposite, whereby
encouragement by male colleagues was strongly associated with willingness to seek
promotion, suggesting that there are important agency and personal conditions necessary for kairotic moments to occur.
In sum, female officers are a multifaceted group who make career decisions using a
complex calculus. Their ability to obtain promotion comes in the form of kairotic
moments where conditions align to create opportunity. These moments may be very different from one woman to the next, as well as from their male peers. Given the plateauing of women in policing, scholars should do more to help identify kairotic moments,
and agencies must increase them to retain and promote more female officers.
The authors would like to thank Jenna Vinson for her inspiration and assistance with previous
drafts of this article as well as the Center for Women & Work for allowing them to workshop
the article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article: This study was partially funded by an internal university grant
from UMASS Boston and Colorado State University.
This is the most recent available data.
Success is broadly defined as not all police women (and men) desire to be promoted for
various reasons some of which may or may not be due to the gendered organization.
Feminist Criminology 13(3)
Success can include achieving other forms of leadership positions within a police agency,
job satisfaction, and retention.
Social networking is not officially part of any promotional practice, but unofficially it can
play a role in the information, support, and familiarity people have with the process.
The fact that the bulk of our participants are in patrol is not an indicator of a failure to navigate the gendered institution of policing. Indeed, the majority of all police officers spend
their entire career as patrol officers given the limited opportunities for promotion. For
many of our respondents, retention was an indicator of successful navigation. In addition,
some of our research participants have risen to leadership positions within patrol being the
unofficial “go-to” person on a shift.
Discussing how female respondents entered into the profession is crucial as it gives us a
sense about early career experiences and their ability to command respect and influence.
Feeling empowered to become a police officer is itself a kairotic moment for some of our
This dated terminology reflects historical treatment of women and the culture of the gendered institution.
A few women in our sample said that having access to a female trainer at the academy was
an impediment as they were tougher on other females.
The use of authority as a resource to contribute to kairotic moments should not be conflated
with paternalism.
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Author Biographies
Melissa S. Morabito is an associate professor at University Massachusetts Lowell in the School
of Criminology and Justice Studies and an associate at the Center for Women and Work. She
received her PhD in justice, law, and society from American University and an MSW from
Columbia University. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of
Mental Health funded Center for Mental Health Services and Criminal Justice Research where
she studied police response to people with mental illnesses. Previously, she worked for the
Department of Justice as a policy analyst with the Office of Community Oriented Policing
Services. She has published in Crime & Delinquency, Policing: An International Journal of
Police Strategies & Management.
Tara O’Connor Shelley is an associate professor and director of the Institute on Violence
Against Women and Human Trafficking as well as the director of the Institute for Criminal
Justice Leadership and Public Policy in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and
Strategic Studies at Tarleton State University. She received her PhD in criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University and her MS in justice, law, and society from the American
University. She previously worked as an associate professor and codirector of the Center for the
Study of Crime and Justice (CSCJ) in the Department of Sociology at Colorado State University.
Prior to joining academia, she worked for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE),
the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), and the Justice Research and Statistics
Association (JRSA). She has recently published in Deviant Behavior, Social Psychology
Quarterly, Critical Criminology, and Violence and Victims.
Discussion: Promotion of Female Police
In the literature review section, the attached Morabito and Shelley article provides an
overview of the explanations why women do not rise through the ranks of police
– What are these main constraints deterring female officers from advancement?
– Based on your own experience, do you believe that these factors are different from the
obstacles to promotion women face in other kind of (non-police) organizations? Why?
Your initial response should be at least 200 words in length; responses to at least two other
students’ postings should be around 50 words (each)
student #1 response
What are these main constraints deterring female officers from advancement?
The primary constraint that only helps female officers advance in law enforcement is
decades of generations and discrimination against women in leadership. This is called
the leaking pipeline. Another thing is that the hiring and retention of women need to
catch up, which reduces the likelihood of women advancing. CAT also gives insight into
how people can process why women are not growing. Some positions in law
enforcement are often hidden and even denied from women, so there is nothing they
can do even to reach the position. Also, the promotion narrative is to work hard and gain
notice from the senior officers, which will lead to your promotion. Still, only men benefit
from the patriarchy in this system. Men are considered tough enough to do the hard
work, are considered good colleagues and partners, and are accessible mentors. These
beliefs add to the fact that female officers cannot advance (Shelley, 2018).
Based on your own experience, do you believe that these factors are different
from the obstacles to promotion women face in other kind of (non-police)
organizations? Why?
No, these conditions apply no matter where women and men work together. Women are
seen as less than in the workplace because they are “emotional” and “can’t get the job
done” that is why the argument that “there has never been a female president” is always
said. Women are not trusted in the workplace, and these obstacles apply anywhere.
But, with a female officer in charge, things are better; it has been proven before in other
departments. An article by Forbes said, “Scientific studies have consistently shown that
on most of the critical traits that make leaders more effective, women tend to outperform
men. For example, humility, self-awareness, self-control, moral sensitivity, social
skills, emotional intelligence, kindness, and a prosocial and moral orientation are all
more likely to be found in women than men”(Premuzic, 2021). Women are much better
at leading a group of people than men, and studies have shown that, but women can’t
get promotions and be leaders because men will always be promoted first.
student #2 response
After reading the article “Constrained Agency Theory and Leadership: A New
Perspective to Understand How Female Police Officers Overcome the Structural and
Social Impediments to Promotion”, I was truly overwhelmed and discouraged by the
amount of politics that go on within law enforcement agencies, and the constant
discrimination and unfair treatment female officers experience while serving in this
capacity. Some basic constraints that deter females from advancement in law
enforcement can be media portrayals, and role models. The more high ranked females
in the media and tv-shows, the more that women feel empowered to go after these
promotions and seek advancement because they see it portrayed within society as an
option in their career. Additionally, high-ranking female role models within law
enforcement are another constraint, if there is a lack of females in these roles to model
and encourage women in lower ranks, than those women will not feel it is possible for
them to advance within the agency. Secondly, another additional constraint that is
deterring female officers from advancement is family life and gender roles. As the one
officer had mentioned, when she was promoted to Sergeant she knew this would be the
“best time” career wise to have her children because it would not noticeably impact her
ability to advance. These conditions and gender expectations for females to be good
mothers and take care of their children, or prioritize their career only are what makes it
hard for females to find balance and consider promotions.
Based on my own experience, I believe some of these factors are similar to obstacles
other women face in promoting within other (non-police) agencies, but I also think some
of these factors are different than what other women in (non-police) agencies might
experience. For example, lacking female employees in media, and role models most
definitely would probably play a factor in whether a female in any career went looking to
promote. However, family and gender roles might not be such a contributing factor in
(non-police) agencies or non-male dominated professions and might be seen as
something to celebrate in say the medical field when compared to law enforcement or
military careers.

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