From the inspirational stories of female officers, to the ABC's of submitting a resume and cover letter, the ‘Women in Policing’ Symposium covered all the bases, for any woman interested in policing as a career option.
The symposium was co-hosted by South Simcoe Police and the Bradford Women’s+ Group. Approximately 70 women pre-registered for the event, and more than 50 came out to the Zima Room of the BWG Public Library on Wednesday night.
“This is the first of this kind of event that we’ve hosted,” said Police Chief Andrew Fletcher. “The level of interest really demonstrates the need.”
Chief Fletcher welcomed the women and provided the context for the symposium.
“We are so proud of what we do. We are not the big police services, like Toronto… but that’s what makes us different,” he said. “We are still small enough to make it personal.”
Fletcher noted that in 1986, only four percent of police staff in Canada were female. Now there are over 15,000 female officers across the country, making up 22 percent of staff.
“Still not enough, but we’ve seen those increases, year after year,” the chief said, noting that South Simcoe was slightly “better than national standards,” with women making up 22.2 percent of its workforce.
The question now is, “how do we need to adapt our recruiting process,” to attract more visible minorities and more women, Fletcher said. “We need that diversified work force.”
Bradford Women’s+ Group co-founders, Jess Corbett – who works with the Canadian Mental Health Association - and Jenn Lloyd, an anti-violence facilitator and Youth Justice worker, provided a more global context for women in policing.
Challenging the audience through a true/false questionnaire, they highlighted both the barriers and benefits of women in the police service.
It was only in 1974 that both the RCMP and OPP hired their first female officers. In the decades since then, it’s no longer ground-breaking to have women in policing - but there are still barriers, largely “because of difficulties in recruitment,” said Corbett, and the emphasis on upper body strength in the testing process.
Yet the benefits of having women in policing is clear, they pointed out. Women officers are more likely to rely on verbal communications and conflict resolution than their weapons or physical interaction, and are preferred by the vulnerable victims of domestic assault or sexual assault, who “just feel heard, and feel believed,” when the responding officer is female.
Bringing in more women also changes the traditional “hyper-masculinity” of a police “force”, leading to less harassment and sexism in the workplace – another reason “why it’s so important that women get involved in policing,” said Lloyd.
Deputy Police Chief Robin McElary-Downer shared her own story in policing, and with the South Simcoe Police in particular – where, she said, “there are no positions we have not held, as women, except two – the training unit, and the K-9 Unit,” and that's only because to date, no women have specifically applied.
Women serve in all other areas of policing, from auxiliaries and civilian communications staff, to traffic officers, court officers, CMEU, forensics – “We gals have all the bases covered,” she said.
It was a different story when McElary-Downer first started in policing.
At the age of five, she knew “I wanted to be a cop,” but when she confided her goal to her father, an OPP officer, he told her, “That’s really nice, but the OPP don’t hire women.”
“Then I’ll have to be the first,” she replied.
McElary-Downer first applied to the OPP in 1981, and was turned down. “I was crushed,” she said – but she also received a letter, inviting her to reapply in a year.
She did, and was accepted. “I made a solemn promise to the OPP I’d never let them down, because they took a chance on me,” McElary-Downer said. It was a promise she kept throughout her 36-year career with the OPP – although she did break two other “vows” to herself.
McElary-Downer vowed she’d never marry or have children; her career would be everything. In fact, she met a fellow officer at her first day of police college, fell in love, married – and had two children.
“It made me a better cop, a better, more compassionate police officer,” McElary-Downer said. “I don’t ever regret breaking those two promises.”
The kids never suffered, she said, despite shift work and the demands of the job, “because the guilt factor set in, and I over-compensated.”
Every day on the job was different, and there were always opportunities to shift gears, moving from general patrol, to traffic patrol, to undercover, to First Nations co-ordinator. She was the first female detachment commander, and director of investigations for legal gaming.
McElary-Downer admitted that there are challenges to being first. “I worked three times harder than any of the guys. I had to prove (women) had a place in policing,” she said.
But times have changed; women are now accepted in police services across the country, and around the world. “You no longer have to prove yourself in this job. You just have to be the best you can be,” she said.
McElary-Downer came to South Simcoe after she retired from the OPP, and calls it “living the dream – this is the ultimate.” McElary-Downer explained, “I always wanted to police in my backyard… This is where I live. This is so different.”
Constable Ashley Keveza took a different path to policing. Keveza had “no history of policing in my family whatsoever. I was the first girl in my family to go against the grain.”
She was also attracted by the variety, the opportunities to explore different aspects of policing, the opportunity to serve the community.
Signing on with Toronto Police, Keveza found that more and more often she was the one who was being asked to deal with cases of sexual assault and exploitation, since female victims preferred to deal with women officers. She eventually was certified as a sexual assault investigator.
But the pressures of the job and the workload eventually drove her to realize that she needed to take care of herself first. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t flourish,” Keveza said.
When she asked herself, “What kind of life do I want to lead?” her decision was not to leave policing, but to apply to the South Simcoe Police Service in 2018 – for her, the right solution.
“Every single thing is figure-out-able,” Keveza said. “If you’re not happy, get out of it… Twelve years ago, I never thought that I would leave the city that gave me everything, but I never looked back.”
Speakers also provided practical information on the steps to take to get started in policing – from resumes and cover letters, to navigating the interview process, and the do’s and don’ts of social media.
“I would like to see more applications from females,” Julie Kumar, Manager of HR for South Simcoe Police, told the audience. “We don’t get enough (women). Where are they going? Why are they not coming? What’s the hesitation?”
In the recent round of hiring by South Simcoe Police, only 10 percent of applications were from females – although all were highly qualified.
The first step is knowing what you want, Kumar said. “Have the courage to know yourself,” she said. “Do you see yourself in uniform? Are you willing to take the steps to become an officer?”
If the answer is yes, then it’s time to prepare, research, and be ready for “the process, as well as the job.”
Kumar noted that recent changes to the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) Certification have reduced some of the barriers. Testing now focuses more on integrity, commitment, honesty and cognitive suitability than on the “upper body strength” that used to be a stumbling block for so many women.
Much of her advice was practical: prepare a professional-looking cover letter and resume, and look at ways to demonstrate community engagement. Recruiters are not necessarily looking for policing experience, but for life experience – like volunteer work, a willingness to learn, and integrity.
As for the resume, keep it simple, truthful and honest, relevant, and “know your content,” Kumar said.
Don’t show up at an interview without knowing what is in your cover letter and resume – and never talk about a life-long desire to work for the OPP, when applying for a job with South Simcoe Police.
Avoid selfies, non-professional email addresses, and triple exclamation marks. “Professionalism will take you a long way,” Kumar said.
And, she said, while there is a minimum age of 18 to apply, “there’s no maximum age.” The only question is: “Can you do the job? Are you mentally and physically able to do the job?”
She concluded, “Policing is not a job. It’s a career choice.”