Roundtable: Leadership development for women in corrections

Women looking to ascend the career ladder in corrections may not always have mentors to provide career-track advice


By Nancy Perry

Female correctional officers looking to ascend the career ladder in corrections may not always have mentors to provide career-track advice. Nonetheless, you can learn a lot from observing others in positions you aspire to.

We asked subject matter experts what advice they would give a female officer looking to develop a career in leadership.

You can learn a lot from observing others in positions you aspire to. (Photo/Corrections1)
You can learn a lot from observing others in positions you aspire to. (Photo/Corrections1)

If you are a female officer and have successfully transitioned into a leadership position, please share your story in the comments below or email editor@corrections1.com.

Diversify your work experience

Many officers, regardless of gender, make the mistake of spending too many years in one assignment, failing to diversify their skill set and experience. When I reached the executive level, I lacked working knowledge of the behind-the-scenes aspect of policing like administration, support services, human resources and budgeting. The executive must also understand the procurement and legislation process necessary for governing bodies to approve legal and financial agency needs.

Obtain a college degree and additional education

 LinkedIn is a great resource to research the training, education and experience the leaders you admire possess. It is also an effective tool to connect with others who may provide insight during your career. 

Identify your agency’s selection process to determine how you may become eligible for executive leadership training.

Develop your communication skills

Leadership requires excellent communication skills. As I rose through the ranks, I learned that public speaking was a critical aspect of my duties. As a lieutenant, I experienced nerve-racking unplanned speaking events. I realized I needed to improve my public speaking skills. I joined Toastmasters, a public speaking support group that is available in locations across the United States and around the world. The organization provides training on public speaking and opportunities to practice your new skills. After completing their beginner program, I aced my promotional exams for captain and deputy chief, which focused heavily on communication skills.

Maintain a social media presence

This can be tricky, but many chief officers have a carefully curated social media presence that allows them to market their policing ideology and connect with thought leaders around the topic of criminal justice. I use Twitter and LinkedIn professionally and have found them fruitful in furtherance of my career and passion projects.

Closely review your agency’s social media policy for compliance. Begin by following leaders you admire and develop an understanding of how social media platforms can be used professionally before diving in. This leads to the next point; ensure your personal social media platforms align with your professional goals. Any thorough employment background check will include a review of all your social media accounts. 

Ivonne Roman founded the Women's Leadership Academy in 2017 partnership with the Newark Police Superior Officers' Association to address the high attrition rates of women in police academies. 

Learn about gender differences

Law enforcement is still a male-dominated profession, so one of the best things a woman can do is learn about men: how they think, how they communicate and what motivates them. Books like “The Male Brain” by Dr. Louann Brizendine and “Work With Me” by Barbara Annis and John Gray are invaluable for this purpose. There are very distinct gender differences as detailed in this article, so take advantage of relevant training to properly utilize these differences for your own success, as well as the success of your team.

Pursue “non-traditional” assignments

Female officers often gravitate to or are pushed toward “soft skill” assignments. These are necessary and valuable jobs, but they may not get you noticed by management. Look at “hard skill” specialties such as hostage negotiations, firearms and defensive tactics. Find a mentor, train hard, excel and become a standout in your agency.

Pursue management-level training

There are so many leadership training opportunities available either in the classroom or online. Take the time to pursue these opportunities.

Often, local or online options can offer a broader range of ideas and information while providing you with networking opportunities beyond the confines of your agency. You may have to pay for some of this training yourself and/or attend on your own time, but see this as an “investment” in you and your career, not a hindrance.

Determine your idea of success

Before you decide you want to pursue a role in management, ask yourself, “What do I want from this career? What role do I want to play in this profession?” Recognize that society, your family and even your agency may push you toward promotion when that’s not necessarily the right thing for you as an individual. Decide what “success” means to you and follow your heart, as well as your head.

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. 

Invest in your career

Due to the fact that there is a gender imbalance in law enforcement, many officers feel like there is no or at least little chance for them to advance. My advice to them would be to not live day to day thinking about gender imbalance. We all know it is there, however, don’t put that first, put your career and desires for your career first. 

Learn as much as you possibly can. Attend as much training as possible, even if you have to do it on your own time or pay out of pocket. Invest in your career. 

While there are training programs that you will likely go through at your department, do not let your learning stop there. If your goal is to be a sergeant, then find out what background other sergeants have. If they have specialized training, get it. If they have a degree, get one. Do this each step of the way. Always look at people in the position you want to be in and look to see what they have in their background that you don’t and go get it. 

Do not depend on your agency “giving” you everything that you will need to progress, again, I say invest in your career. Regardless of your gender, when you have a solid background, knowledge base and attitude, your path to success will be an easier one to navigate.

LJ Roscoe was sworn in as the Goose Creek Police Department Chief on January 18, 2019. She began her career in law enforcement in 1991 when she joined the DeKalb County Sheriff’s office as a detention officer. 

Do your homework, then make your move

Whether you are beginning your career, or looking for advancement, my advice is to compare agencies and choose the agency with the highest percentages of females at all ranks.

An excellent way to compare agencies for female officers already in the profession is to attend multi-agency leadership development courses and/or policing conferences. Conferences will increase your network sphere, as well as provide an unvarnished view into the culture of other organizations. In addition to broadening your professional network, leadership development courses will develop you personally and make you more competitive during a promotion process.

Don’t be afraid to change agencies. If you hit a systemic roadblock within your agency, bring it to the attention of someone with the power to change it. If nothing changes, it is time for you to change organizations. Look for a progressive, innovative chief or sheriff.  Leadership sets the working tone of a department. Good leaders will be happy to recruit hard-working, well-trained officers who are secure enough to vote with their feet. 

Leaders in organizations with high female attrition rates and/or a low percentage of females proportionally represented in rank structure, need to identify the problem and make organizational changes. This is a leadership issue not a loyalty test.

Jane Hall is author of "The Red Wall: A Woman in the RCMP," chair of the RCMP Veteran Women’s Council and is a lecturer at LEMIT on Police Culture and Organizational Change.

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