I want to share an interesting conversation that I once had with a really smart woman. It took place around 2010 or 2011 when I stopped into an employee consultation session to check on how things were going, chatting with the woman, Carol, who was the session's facilitator. Carol is a highly accomplished person and I had great faith in her ability to lead a credible process that would really help the department. As she and I chatted, small groups of employees worked amongst themselves. At one point Carol said to me, "You know Barry, you have extraordinary women working in the department." I felt immediately proud of this, and I agreed; the women were indeed very bright lights among our staff, who in general I saw as the best police officers I could imagine. She went on to say that she had spent time with a number of the women in the sessions, and that from her considerable expertise, she considered them all to be within that stream of employees some would refer to as "high flyers". Again, I felt very proud about this.
Then Carol added, "You know, that's not necessarily a completely positive thing." Really, I thought, how could there be a down side to this? She went on to explain to me, as it had been explained to her by another person years before, that women in some professions appear to be distributed along the normal curve at a different rate than men, with more at the high-performing end, and fewer at the average and lower-performing areas of the curve.
We all know the normal curve (see graphic). A few folks perform at a lower level of competency, requiring more coaching than others. Most people are average and require some support, and a few are at the high-performing end, your superstars.
Caveat: I am certainly not saying that women are smarter than men, nor are they necessarily better policing officers.
But it certainly does appear that there is something going on, and I support Carol's hypothesis which is that in male-dominated professions, there are structural and systemic barriers that make it more difficult for women to thrive. When it is more difficult for women in general to thrive, fewer of the average and below average women make it through, leaving a higher proportion of highly competent women. Without getting into an exhaustive list of the barriers that impact women, they include things like:
- fewer women police officer role models.
- fewer women in senior and specialized roles in policing.
- fewer women to mentor other women
- maternity leave being non-pensionable service, and women continuing to take the majority of parental leave time
- women being primary care givers for both children and aging parents
- residual effects of "the old boys club", and
- residual police culture that marginalizes women
Based on Carol's hypothesis, you know you have a workforce with gender equality when there is a similar distribution of genders throughout the normal curve. A few "superstars", but lots of average, and below average, in all genders.
What happens when the women are extraordinary at a higher rate than the men? Not good things. We'll talk about that more the next time in Part 3.