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Overcoming Tokenism and Gender Barriers: The Critical Role of Nongovernmental Organizations for Women in Federal Law Enforcement

By Helen H. Yu, PhD, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Air Force, and Adjunct Professor, Hawaii Pacific University, Honolulu, Hawaii

According to 2008 figures provided by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Bureau of Justice Statistics, women comprise just 15.5 percent of all sworn federal law enforcement officers, a decrease from 16.1 percent in 2004.1 What accounts for this underrepresentation is unclear; however, organizations with a very low percentage of minority workers, in this case, women, place countless stressors on those persons. Women have been in federal law enforcement only since 1971, but decades of research have illustrated women’s struggles to integrate into all levels of law enforcement and have shown that peer support and informal networks become essential to this minority group. Due to the decentralized nature of federal law enforcement, nongovernmental organizations such as the Women in Federal Law Enforcement, Inc. (WIFLE) have come to the forefront as advocates for all women in federal law enforcement. Not only are these organizations leading the charge in promoting women-friendly policies throughout federal law enforcement, they also offer the peer support and informal networks critical to the success and retention of women in federal policing. As federal law enforcement agencies increasingly have to compete for quality candidates in order to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, administrators need to understand the role these nongovernmental organizations play in increasing the number of women in policing.


Tokenism occurs whenever the dominant group outnumbers the minority group by ratios ranging from 99:1 through 70:30 and serves as a barrier to equal treatment in the workforce. According to Kanter’s theory of proportional representation or tokenism, employment organizations having a very low percentage of minority workers place multiple stressors on those individuals or “tokens.”2 Foremost, tokens are highly visible within an organization and attract a disproportionate amount of attention, placing them under a spotlight.3 Tokens experience strong feelings of isolation as they are “in but not of” an organization, as well as stress because they are given little margin for error.4 The token status of women in police organizations may exacerbate the expectations and stereotypes already common with female officers, such as ineffectiveness, inability to meet the job’s physical demands, or familial neglect.5 The error of one woman becomes embellished and applied to all others, building on the negative stereotypes.6 Female officers are expected to perform at the same level as male officers without crossing the line of not behaving within the established acceptable female stereotype.7

Yoder further interprets Kanter’s definition of tokenism by stating that tokenism occurs whenever the minority makes up less than 15 percent of the whole.8 Though women in federal law enforcement (barely) surpass this token threshold, Brown, who concurs that the low number of women in organizations serve as an influential inhibitor in the equal treatment of women in the workforce, further suggests that until women reach a 25 percent proportion of the total workforce, they will continue to suffer token status, which ultimately reinforces negative stereotypes.9 Dahlerup also extends Kanter’s analysis and pinpoints 30 percent as the crucial cut-off point for impact by a minority group.10 Until that minimum representation is met, women will not be able to make a substantial difference in promoting women-friendly policy changes or influence their male colleagues.11 This is particularly important since research has shown that the most salient challenge women face is male colleagues’ negative attitudes.12 Regardless of the actual percentage that defines tokenism, the status of women in federal law enforcement clearly places them as tokens.

Role of Nongovernmental Organizations

Federal law enforcement is decentralized; it operates under the current U.S. institutional arrangement to promote multiple smaller agencies rather than one large overarching agency. There are over 100 federal law enforcement agencies that operate independently from one another.13 In addition, the major federal agencies, which employ 96 percent of all federal officers, have field offices geographically dispersed in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and in an ever-increasing number of foreign countries and are separated from their headquarters. While there are advantages to decentralization, there are disadvantages as well, especially for tokens. Some of those disadvantages include duplication and confusion by multiple actors, difficulty with coordination because agencies operate as independent and sovereign units, and the potential for inequality in services and policy across agencies.14 These disadvantages make nongovernmental organizations critical. Emerging literature on the importance of networks has shown how nongovernmental organizations (for-profit and non-profit) exchange information, manage knowledge, and address problems of mutual concern with public officials at all levels of government.15 Non-profit organizations and networks of non-profits spread policy information and can help government agencies build capacity for change.16 This is particularly important for women in federal law enforcement. Reputable non-profit organizations such as Women in Federal Law Enforcement, Inc. (WIFLE) are leading the charge in promoting women-friendly policies throughout federal law enforcement and making policy recommendations on topics such as pregnancy to all federal agency directors. Incorporated in June 1999 as a non-profit organization, WIFLE is an outgrowth of an interagency committee from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Treasury, and its mission is to promote gender equity through its leadership education center that provides training, research, scholarships, awards, and networking opportunities in partnership with law enforcement agencies, their members, and supportive sponsors.17 Without WIFLE to advocate for female officers, there is no guarantee that the over 100 federal law enforcement agencies will independently provide the extra support needed for their female federal officers.

Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE)
The Interagency Committee on Women in Federal Law Enforcement (ICWIFLE) began as a task force created by the Office of Personnel Management in 1978 to study reasons for low numbers of women entering federal law enforcement. In 1999, members of ICWIFLE combined their intellect and finances and created the non-profit organization Women in Federal Law Enforcement, Inc. (WIFLE), non-profit corporation to serve as a professional organization for both sworn and non-sworn women and men in federal law enforcement.

In 2006, the WIFLE Foundation, Inc. was created, which provides Annual Leadership Training, the Scholarship Program, WIFLE Awards, research, and other programs. These two organizations assist agencies to recruit, develop better retention rates, and provide training to help promote women in federal law enforcement by
  • identifying barriers to hiring, promoting, and retaining women in the law enforcement profession;
  • monitoring the progress of agencies in the hiring, promotion, and retention of women in law enforcement and recommending methods for improvement;
  • enhancing the image of law enforcement in the communities served;
  • promoting the value of collaborative and cooperative leadership styles;
  • conducting research on issues affecting women in law enforcement positions and establishing and maintaining an information sharing network; and
  • recognizing women’s contributions to the profession through its awards program.

More information about the organization or on becoming a WIFLE member can be found at or by contacting

In addition, other non-profit organizations such as the International Association of Women Police (IAWP), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE), and the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP) provide information, guidance, and support to female law enforcement officers, as well as educate police administrators, politicians, the media, and the public about the benefits of increasing the number of women in law enforcement. Without these nongovernmental organizations, the law enforcement agencies themselves are left to guess at the answers, a costly and imprecise method for addressing this important issue.

International Association of Women Police (IAWP)
The International Association of Women Police (IAWP) represents the interests of police women throughout the world and has members in 69 countries.

It is a dynamic, forward-thinking organization whose mission is to strengthen, unite and raise the profile of women working in criminal justice internationally. The IAWP supports women in policing by providing resources; training; mentoring; publications, including the quarterly WomenPolice magazine; networking opportunities and events, including an annual conference; and awards and recognition. For more information, visit

Peer Support and Informal Networks
The importance and value of peer support and acceptance cannot be overstated in law enforcement. To be a member in good standing within the organization is necessary for the maintenance of an officer’s perception of his or her self-worth and ultimately has a considerable impact on officer retention and longevity.18 Research has shown that women in federal law enforcement are lacking workplace social support—the combination of instrumental support, emotional support, and mentoring received from colleagues and supervisors.19 This inability to establish workplace networks prevents women from satisfying their needs for affiliation and relationships.20 Consequently, how female officers perceive their acceptance and gauge their capabilities has a significant impact on job satisfaction and coping strategies, which also directly
impacts officer retention and longevity.21 Due to the low proportion of female officers in all federal agencies, it is crucial for those agencies attempting to achieve gender parity to retain female officers. As previously mentioned, a number of national and international associations exist to give support to female officers. For example, among their many training opportunities, WIFLE’s capstone event is their annual four-day Leadership Training Conference, usually held in June in various locations throughout the United States. The relevant and up-to-date topics covered in the 20+ training seminars throughout the week are beneficial to both male and female federal law enforcement officers; however, because women are unlikely to find a large number of women at their own agencies, the opportunity and ability to attend WIFLE’s Leadership Training Conference is paramount to building this peer support.

The National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE)
The National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) was the first organization established to address the unique needs of women holding senior management positions in law enforcement. (NAWLEE) strives to provide opportunities to further the interests and development of women law enforcement executives and those who aspire to be executives. It serves as a means to sponsor research, create programs and educational opportunities to enhance the advancement of women in law enforcement. The general purpose of NAWLEE is to promote the ideals and principles of women executives and those aspiring to be executives in law enforcement by
  • providing or conducting training conferences, programs and educational events and workshops related to women law enforcement executives;
  • providing educational opportunities to remove the barriers to women in policing and improve the quality of law enforcement services through the development and promotion of the unique skills women law enforcement officers bring to the policing profession;
  • providing mentors for those achieving or desiring management roles;
  • rewarding excellence through yearly awards;
  • educating the public and law enforcement community about the value of diversity, especially women, in law enforcement organizations;
  • providing scholarships for women law enforcement executives and those aspiring to be executives to attend educational programs; and
  • providing a forum for the exchange of information concerning law enforcement and generally fostering effective law enforcement.

As a non-profit organization, NAWLEE provides educational opportunities and mentoring to its members as a means to enhance the careers of current members and provides sup- port to those seeking to advance their careers. Quarterly newsletters advise members of activities and provide resources in the form of articles directed at police leaders. Each year NAWLEE holds a conference in partnership with police departments in host cities. More information can be obtained by visiting the NAWLEE website at or by email at

In addition, research has shown a lack of female role models in higher ranks as a major obstacle to younger female officers.22 Without the guidance of veterans to teach rookies the ropes, female officers are not part of the informal networks that are essential to the police culture.23 The lack of female role models may also foster feelings of isolation in law enforcement organizations. Attending WIFLE’s Leadership Training Conference and other women-focused trainings not only afford female attendees an avenue to meet and network with their peers, but also receive words of wisdom and mentoring from high-ranking female federal officers. For example, the last three WIFLE Leadership Training Conferences had comprised Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security; Julia Pierson, the first female director of the U.S. Secret Service; and Michele Leonhart, the first female administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency to come up through the ranks to hold that post, as the keynote speakers. Unique mentoring opportunities such as these can make all the difference in a young female officer’s decision to remain in or depart from federal law enforcement. Agency directors who are serious about retaining more women in their organizations should send their young female law enforcement officers to this or similar training and opportunities, even during fiscally constraining times.

Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI)
IACP has created a 44-hour leadership training program for current and emerging woman leaders in public safety. The Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI) is open to sworn and non-sworn women and men seeking either to improve their organization’s approach to the development of women leaders or to develop their own skills.

IACP’s Center for Police Leadership and Training conducted focus groups and workshops to identify the topics in the curriculum. These developmental efforts culminated in a first pilot of the program in Charlottesville, Virginia, cohosted by the Virginia Chiefs Association from February 24 to March 1, 2013. The response to this event and later pilots has been very positive, and the center has now scheduled classes at an additional six locations in 2014. Planning is under way to continue to expand the WLI in 2015. Students, typically first-line supervisors and above, have ranged from troopers to deputy chiefs. The topics presented include leadership science on leading people, groups, and change; creating an ethical climate within the organization; and fair and impartial policing. In addition, there are sessions on improving communications and counseling and stress management skills as a leader. The final portion of the institute is focused on having participants develop a strategic plan for their careers with assistance from the institute’s faculty, who have served or are serving as chiefs, superintendents, and other command-level or senior law enforcement professionals and are from local, state, federal, and international law enforcement organizations.

Learn more at Leadership Institute or contact Laura Reneger at 703-836-6767 x 274 or


Though women have made great strides in law enforcement and many agencies have taken action to eliminate and reduce occupational barriers, they still exist. Until law enforcement agencies reach gender parity, understanding how women cope with these barriers is just as important as getting there. Due to the decentralized nature of federal law enforcement, many female officers are unable to establish the peer support and informal networks critical to cope with the many stressors that token status brings them at their own agencies. As federal law enforcement agencies increasingly have to compete for quality candidates in order to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, administrators should utilize all the tools available to them, including nongovernmental organizations. These organizations tackle the problems that cut across boundaries of agencies and programs and deal with ambitious policy goals in contexts of dispersed power. ♦


1 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Law Enforcement Officers, 2008, June 2012, (accessed July 19, 2013); Brian A. Reaves, Federal Law Enforcement Officers, 2004, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 2006, NCJ 238250, (accessed July 19, 2013).
2 Rosabeth M. Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation (New York, NY: Basic, 1977).
3 Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation.
4 Ibid.; Joanne Belknap and Jill K. Shelley, “The New Lone Ranger: Policewomen on Patrol,” American Journal of Police 12, no. 2 (1992): 47–76.
5 Cara Rabe-Hemp, “Survival in an ‘All Boys Club’: Policewomen and Their Fight for Acceptance,” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management 31, no. 2 (2008): 251–270.
6 Susan E. Martin and Nancy C. Jurik, Doing Justice, Doing Gender: Women in Legal and Criminal Justice Occupations (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2006).
7 Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation; Teresa L. Wertsch, “Walking the Thin Blue Line: Policewomen and Tokenism Today,” Women and Criminal Justice 9, no. 3 (1998): 23–61.
8 Janice D. Yoder, “Looking Beyond Numbers: The Effects of Gender Status, Job Prestige, and Occupational Gender-Typing on Tokenism Processes,” Social Psychology Quarterly 57, no. 2 (1994): 150–159.
9 Jennifer M. Brown, “Aspects of Discriminatory Treatment of Women Police Officers Serving in Forces in England and Wales,” British Journal of Criminology 38, no. 2 (1998): 265–282; John T. Krimmel and Paula E. Gormley, “Tokenism and Job Satisfaction for Policewomen,” American Journal of Criminal Justice 28, no. 1 (2003): 73–88.
10 Drude Dahlerup, “The Theory of a Critical Mass Revisited” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, September 1–4, 2005), (accessed December 5, 2013).
11 Sarah Childs and Mona L. Krook, “Critical Mass Theory and Women’s Political Representation,” Political Studies 56, no. 3 (2008): 725–736, (accessed December 5, 2013).
12 Susan Keverline, “Women’s Persistence in Nontraditional Occupations: A Study of Federal Law Enforcement” (PhD diss., George Washington University, 2003); Judie G. Wexler and Deana D. Logan, “Sources of Stress Among Women Police Officers,” Journal of Police Science and Administration 11 (1983): 46–53; William M. Timmons and Brad E. Hainsworth, “Attracting and Retaining Females in Law Enforcement: Sex-Based Problems of Women Cops in 1988,” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 33 (1989): 197–205.
13 Jeffrey B. Bumgarner, Federal Agents: The Growth of Federal Law Enforcement in America (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006); Thomas H. Ackerman, Federal Law Enforcement Careers: Profiles of 250 High-Powered Positions and Tactics for Getting Hired (Indianapolis, IN: JIST Works, 2006).
14 G. Ross Stephens and Nelson Wikstrom, American Intergovernmental Relations: A Fragmented Federal Polity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007).
15 Robert Agranoff, Managing Within Networks: Adding Value to Public Organizations (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007).
16 Kathleen Hale, How Information Matters: Networks and Public Policy Innovation (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011).
17 Women in Federal Law Enforcement, “WIFLE History,” (accessed July 20, 2013).
18 Michael K. Brown, Working the Street: Police Discretion and the Dilemmas of Reform (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1981); William G. Doerner, “Officer Retention Patterns: An Affirmative Action Concern for Police Agencies,” American Journal of Police 14, no. 3-4 (1995): 197–210.
19 Keverline, Women’s Persistence in Nontraditional Occupations.
20 Ibid.
21 Jennifer M. Brown and Frances Heidensohn, Gender and Policing (London: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
22 Susan E. Martin, Breaking and Entering: Police Women on Patrol (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1980); Eric Poole and Mark Pogrebin, “Factors Affecting the Decision to Remain in Policing: A Study of Women Officers,” Journal of Police Science and Administration 16, no. 1 (1988): 49–55; Dorothy M. Schulz, Breaking the Brass Ceiling: Women Police Chiefs and Their Paths to the Top (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004).
23 Sandra K. Wells and Betty L. Alt, Police Women: Life with the Badge (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005); Wexler and Logan, “Sources of Stress Among Women Police Officers.”

Helen H. Yu received her PhD from Auburn University and is an adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University. She is an active duty lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force assigned to Camp H. M. Smith, U.S. Pacific Command and has worked in federal law enforcement for more than 16 years. Her research interests include the recruitment and retention of women in federal law enforcement, policy decision making in policing, representative bureaucracy, non-profit organizations, and federalism. She is also a senior advisor with the Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE), Inc., the only such non-profit organization representing U.S. women in federal law enforcement.

Please cite as:

Helen H. Yu, “Overcoming Tokenism and Gender Barriers: The Critical Role of Nongovernmental Organizations for Women in Federal Law Enforcement,” The Police Chief 81 (January 2014): 48–51.



From The Police Chief, vol. 81, no. 1, January 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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