We often spend so much time in a male-dominated profession like law enforcement talking about male/female relationships in the workplace that we often ignore discussing women’s interactions with each other. This is unfortunate, because as many women will tell you, their biggest source of stress and drama in the station isn’t the guys, it’s the other women.
In a recent workplace bullying study by Zogby International, when women chose to bully, 71% of the time they chose other women as their targets! In my training class “Career and Tactical Survival for Women,” we discuss this topic at length. My students tend to agree that women make easy targets for other women because in part, we know how to “get to” each other. Author and researcher Dr. Louann Brizendine talks about this in her breakthrough book The Female Brain. Females, beginning in childhood, are motivated on a molecular and a neurological level to ease and prevent social conflict, especially with other females. Losing intimate relationships is one of the greatest sources of stress on the female brain, and women instinctively know this.
Gender-specific research tells us that biologically, women need to feel connected, they need approval from those they respect and care about, and they cannot stand to be left out. This isn’t antidotal, its science! How does this apply to police work? I don’t care how much of a rough-and-tumble veteran female cop (or dispatcher, or records clerk) you are, your feelings get hurt when you’re excluded, and other women know how to exploit this. There is also new research indicating that poor relationships at work are especially detrimental for women. University of Manitoba's M. Sandy Hershcovis and Julian Barling of Queen's University in Ontario show that workplace bullying is hurting employees more than sexual harassment--causing more job stress, less job commitment and higher levels of anxiety. So how do we stop this destructive and unproductive trend?
First of all, embrace each other’s differences. While women tend to have similar characteristics when it comes to physiology and brain chemistry, we are not all alike in every single way. Individual women have differing values, morals, and work habits. As a veteran woman, you may be aggravated that the new female rookie is dating her way through the department, but instead of ostracizing her, try mentoring her. She may be resistive at first, but don’t give up, and at the very least, don’t work against her. Be a role model, a leader, a teacher, not a bully.
If you’re the senior female on your department let go of your “Queen Bee” role. Yes, we groundbreakers had it tougher than the new women, but instead of making sure they suffer the same difficulties and indignities we did “back in the old days,” why not take pride in the fact that you overcame those obstacles, and work hard to make sure the newbie’s don’t have to spend so much time dealing with those same gender barriers. The less bullying and drama there is, the more everyone can just focus on doing good police work.
If you’re one of those new female rookies, reach out to the other women on your department, and not just the other women cops. Women need that female-to-female connection, so make sure to establish relationships not only with the other cops but with female dispatchers, records clerks, and other women on the department. Just for fun, arrange a casual departmental social event, women only! You may think its easier to just come to work, do your job and not be friends with anyone, but you truly are not set up to be a lone she-wolf, take the time to reach out!
What if you are a woman being outwardly bullied by a female co-worker? First, try standing up to them in a polite but firm manner. Some people really don’t mean to be jerks, they just have lousy social skills or are not sure how to deal with another woman in the workplace, especially if you are part of a smaller organization. If they persist, practice indifference; very often a bully is just looking for a reaction. You can also try recruiting others who are victims of a particular bully to help provide a united front against her; there really is strength in numbers.
Be sure not to over-react or spend too much time obsessing about the situation; you can’t control how others treat you, but you can certainly control how you react and how you feel about it. Monitor your own behavior and make sure you treat people with compassion and professionalism, and most of all, don’t let difficult workplace relationships affect your performance. Your priority on the job is the safety of the community, your co-workers, and yourself, never lose sight of that, and as Winston Churchill said, “never never never give up!” Stay safe!
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith is a 29-year veteran of a large suburban Chicago police department. Recently retired as a patrol supervisor, she has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, crime prevention and field training. As a sergeant, she supervised her department's K-9 Unit, served as a field training sergeant, recruitment team sergeant, bike patrol coordinator, the Crowd Control Bike Team supervisor, and supervisor of the Community Education/Crime Prevention Unit.
As a patrol sergeant, Betsy served on the Elderly Services Team, the Crisis Intervention Team, and was a supervisory member of the Honor Guard Unit. From 1999 - 2003 Betsy hosted various programs for the Law Enforcement Television Network and served as a content expert.
A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command, Betsy writes for numerous law enforcement and government publications including and is a regular columnist for many police websites including Police Link. A content expert and instructor for the Calibre Press "Street Survival" seminar since 2003, Betsy also serves as an on-air commentator and advisor for Police One TV and was a featured character in the Biography Channel’s “Female Forces” reality show. Betsy has been a law enforcement trainer for over 20 years and is a popular keynote speaker at conferences throughout the United States and Canada and beyond.
Betsy is the lead instructor for the Calibre Press “Street Survival for Women” seminar and manages Dave Smith & Associates. Together, Betsy and Dave teach courses through “Winning Mind Seminars,” an Illinois based company. She can be reached through her website at www.femaleforces.com.