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Criminal Justice Careers for Women: Leadership Opportunities

While stereotypically considered a male-dominated field, women are slowly becoming a more prominent part of the workforce in criminal justice agencies across the country. From 1990-2000, the amount of female law enforcement officers increased only slightly, growing at a very slow rate over the course of the decade. The growth increased somewhat in the early 2000’s, with some branches of federal law enforcement being comprised of nearly 32% female employees by 2008.

However, the departmental data paints a more optimistic picture than the national data for women in the criminal justice field. According to a report submitted to the FBI, women represented only 12% of the 700,000 police officers in the country in 2011. Ten years prior, it was 11.2%, which means there’s only been slight progress made on this front. Meanwhile, as of 2010, women comprise 46.8% of the national labor force as a whole, so the proportional discrepancy is rather significant.

Leadership opportunities show an even greater discrepancy between male and female criminal justice professionals, with only 219 women holding chief positions – a miniscule portion of the positions available within the 14,000 police agencies nationwide. That said, some of those positions are quite prominent, including the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Director of the United States Marshals Service. The broader lack of women in criminal justice is still starkly evident, however.

Criminal Justice field Possible job roles
Leadership in Specialized Agencies Special agent (FBI, CIA)
Offender Services Probation officers, Parole officers, Correctional specialists
Criminal Justice Education Instructor at universities, vocational training programs, and police academies


A Promising Future

With several organizations devoted to the cause of increasing the amount of women in law enforcement, the issue isn’t far from the public eye. Support for women in criminal justice careers has grown significantly, as a result.

There’s a great deal of room for the next generation of female leaders in law enforcement to bring a new perspective to the criminal justice system.

Leadership in Specialized Agencies – FBI, CIA etc.

Over 2,000 women serve as Special Agents within the FBI alone, with many success stories now emerging from those with varied educational backgrounds. These agents serve in a number of different capacities, with the FBI in particular emphasizing the hiring of those who can contribute to the organization in unique ways, and especially women. Agents can serve in the more traditional investigator role, but they’re seen in other administrative areas, as well. Analytical thinking skills and good judgment are essential, though, regardless of background.

By pursuing advanced education in criminal justice, female job candidates can further distinguish themselves from the field and find a quicker path to leadership positions in high profile agencies.

Offender Services

If you’re interested in engaging with criminal offenders in a rehabilitative or correctional environment, a career in offender services may be the perfect fit. This field consists of probation officers, parole officers, and correctional specialists that work directly with convicted criminals to monitor their progress and prevent further crimes from being committed. To do this, these specialists closely evaluate those they serve to determine the best options for any necessary treatment and reintegration into the world, including offering access to counseling or job training.

Since they’re accountable for the court’s assessment of a criminal’s ability to rejoin society, they bear a great deal of responsibility. With that in mind, earning not just bachelor’s level, but also graduate level education can help ensure you have the skills necessary for the job, and also open the doors for leadership opportunities in the field and expanded career prospects.

Criminal Justice Education

Teachers that can help prepare students for the rigors of working in a law enforcement agency are incredibly valuable to community colleges, universities, vocational training programs, and police academies nationwide. This career path is a fulfilling, secure path for anyone who may not be interested in becoming a practicing agent or officer, but wants to ensure that the next generation is well-trained and ready to face the challenges in criminal justice to come. Pursuing graduate education can help prepare an aspiring, female law enforcement professional for teaching at the community college level, or participating in ongoing research in criminal justice.

What’s Different for Women in Criminal Justice? Less Than You Think.

Although women have proven their capability in the law enforcement profession, they may still face judgment from their male peers. These judgments are misperceptions of women’s aptitude to succeed as leaders in the field, and more and more women are entering law enforcement professions with a desire to fight injustice and serve their communities.

We reached out to industry insider Sharon Anderson, a Sergeant at the Sycamore Police Department in Illinois, for her perspective. A long-term professional contact of our esteemed faculty member, Dr. Patrick Solar, Sharon spoke to us about the challenges women may face when choosing careers in the criminal justice field along with her own personal experience as a female officer.

What is your educational and professional background?

I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology with an emphasis in Criminology and a Master of Arts in Law Enforcement Administration. I have been a police officer since 1993 and I was promoted to Sergeant in 2006. After being promoted, I attended Police Staff and Command at Northwestern University. I also attended the FBI National Academy.

What are the career prospects for women in criminal justice?

I believe there are a high level of career prospects for women in criminal justice. Just like men, women can look in many different areas. Jobs can be found at all levels: local, state, and federal. Women can become police officers, corrections officers, probation officers, or special agents. If enforcing the law is not an area of interest, they can look into becoming a lawyer or a counselor.

Why did you decide to go into the field? Which (if any) concerns did you have at the onset?

I went into the criminal justice field because I have always had an interest in law enforcement. While I was in college, I took a business class and realized that it was not for me. I enjoy dealing with people and facing new obstacles every day.

At the beginning of my career in law enforcement, I was concerned about how I was going to fit in and how I was going to be perceived. When I started working, I was the first female at my agency in over 12 years; the first female had left approximately 15 years prior to my appointment.

I had to show I was just as capable as the men at doing the job of a cop in order for them to accept me, and realized I was there to do the same job the men were there to do. The public was not accustomed to seeing females coming into the world of law enforcement. I remember times when citizens would not take me seriously. They wanted to wait for a male officer to show up on calls because they were not used to seeing a female officer.

How has the treatment of women in the criminal justice field evolved over time?

The treatment for women in the criminal justice field has changed. Women are afforded the same opportunities as men who are involved in criminal justice. Women and men take the same promotional exams, work the same schedules, and are paid the same salaries.

Is there a difference in treatment for women in the criminal justice field vs. their male counterparts?

There may still be some difference in treatment for women vs. males in criminal justice, but I don’t believe it is as pronounced as it used to be. Today, it is common for females to be in law enforcement. Now we have women who are chiefs, sheriffs, and judges.

What advice do you have for women entering the field of criminal justice management?

I would probably give the same advice to women and men: to finish their education first, since working shift work makes it very difficult to attend class. I would encourage them to pursue internships and to ride along with agencies for which they would like to work. This experience will give the person a true understanding of what the job entails and what they may face on the field.

What are some unique things women have to think about when entering the field that men might not need to consider?

I am sure there are several unique things women have to consider before entering this field. One that comes to mind is the need to plan their future and where they want it to be. For example: the desire to have a family. Police officers with families are not uncommon, but it can take a lot of work to make everything balance. As a woman, you have to be a wife, a mom, a friend, and a cop, all in one person. Not everyone can do that, and some days it is easier than others. A person needs to recognize the balance and understand how to keep everything prioritized.

If this is a profession you truly want, then you need to make sure that your family and friends are truly supportive of the job. If you don’t have support at home, it will make the job that much more difficult.

The field of criminal justice is challenging regardless of gender. Both women and men officers must serve their communities while upholding the utmost respect for the law and moral values. As the demand for professionalism in law enforcement grows, so does the need for people in managerial positions with education as well as experience. If you are considering leadership in criminal justice, learn more about our online master’s degree in criminal justice.

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