Illustration by Ben Jones

Arrested development: the inside story of institutional misogyny in the police

Do senior officers have the will—or the means—to fix the problem?
October 6, 2022

On the day that Claire joined the Metropolitan Police, senior leaders gave a talk reminding new recruits that officers were not legally allowed to sue for unfair dismissal. “Looking back, it’s almost like they were saying: ‘We’re terrible to you. There’s nothing you can do’,” she says. But she still wasn’t prepared for the backlash she would later receive for speaking out against misogyny. 

When Claire later came out as bisexual, “within 10 minutes” a man on her team told her a story about having sex with a “Russian whore”. “I was just like, so you think that because I like women as well as men, now you can just degrade women in front of me?” she says.

The man was given an informal talking to by a senior officer but, two days later, he refused to speak or walk next to Claire when they were sent out on patrol together. “I didn’t know what to do. Even if you’re a police officer, you’re still a woman stuck with a bloke who has already proved he does not respect women, and now hates you.” Claire learnt the hard way how the police deal with misogyny: “If something happens, you just deal with it. [Reporting] is just not the done thing.”

Police forces in the UK—and the Metropolitan Police in particular—are under pressure to tackle both misogyny and racism in their ranks. A series of high-profile failings, including the murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021 by serving police officer Wayne Couzens, and an incident where two constables photographed and shared on WhatsApp images of the murdered sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, contributed to the resignation this February of Cressida Dick, the first female commissioner of the Met. Perhaps the last straw was a report published by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) in February, revealing a torrent of racist and sexist WhatsApp and Facebook messages from officers at Charing Cross police station. One bragged about hitting his girlfriend, adding, “It makes them love you more.” Other messages read: “I would happily rape you” and “If I was single I would happily chloroform you.”

The tone of these messages shocked the public but didn’t surprise many female officers, who are used to the casual misogyny of their colleagues. 

I have spoken to more than a dozen female current and ex-officers about their experiences of misogyny in the police. They all say they have faced sexism from colleagues, ranging from patronising comments to sexual assault. Many serving female officers told me they don’t feel completely safe at work.

If these women can’t trust male police officers, how can we expect others to do so? In November 2021, YouGov reported that nearly half of British women had lost trust in the police after Everard’s murder, while three quarters thought police culture needed to change its response to violence against women. For women in vulnerable or dangerous situations, having faith in the police’s ability to help them is vital—but that faith has been eroded.

The police were not set up with women in mind. Female officers first joined in 1915, but were segregated from men until the the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act in the 1970s. Up to 1999, they were called WPCs (women police constables) and paid less than their male peers. Rules excluded WPCs from some jobs, particularly dangerous ones. The glass ceiling persisted for a long time: Alison Halford, the first female assistant chief constable, sued Merseyside Police for sex discrimination after she failed—despite repeated attempts—to win further promotion. The force settled with her in 1992.

Equipment was designed for men. If women were given truncheons at all, they had to be small enough to fit inside their handbags. They patrolled in skirts. Helen King, assistant commissioner for the Met until 2017, had to buy her own steel-toecap boots when she started public order training after joining in 1986, because the police-issued ones didn’t go below size eight. Training courses were also built for men: to be allowed to use a firearm, officers had to complete an assault course which required them to scale an eight-foot wall and run while carrying another officer.

“When I joined in 1976, it was like Life on Mars,” says Sue Akers, former Met deputy assistant commissioner. “I was always the only woman in an office.” Women were expected to make the tea and coffee and take on other menial tasks; often they were the butt of sexist jokes. Once a week, Akers would be alone on a late-night shift because virtually everyone in her Criminal Investigation Department (CID) office was at a lodge meeting of the men-only Freemasons order.

“In those days, the wider sexist culture was across society and policing,” King says. “There was a lot of paternalism, and a lot of people telling me in my twenties that they wouldn’t be very happy with their daughter being a police officer.” A macho culture was encouraged. Akers remembers that men who enjoyed humiliating and swearing at their colleagues were nicknamed “silverbacks”. “It was quite common knowledge that certain commissioners would almost have people up against the wall.”

When Sue Fish joined Nottinghamshire Police in the mid-1980s, she felt pressured into getting engaged to her boyfriend—“because otherwise I was seen as having poor morals and was therefore not suitable to be a police officer.” She recalls a constable from another force visiting and, on seeing a female firearms officer, asking: “Have you run out of fucking men, then?”

Fish says she was assaulted twice by police officers in her career, once by her own boss. “There was nothing that gave him signals that I wanted him to fondle me in the way that he did,” she says. “I was safe until I wasn’t.” She didn’t report it. “Everyone loved him. He was a great bloke and a good cop,” she says. “There was no reason why anyone would believe me, because it was my word against his. So I chalked it up to experience.” 

The second time the perpetrator was one of the most senior men in UK policing. When she told her chief constable, the man was informally spoken to but not officially reprimanded. “Of course, he denied it. He couldn’t remember a thing—must have been very drunk—so obviously, it didn’t happen.”

If women were given truncheons, they had to be small enough to fit inside their handbags 

When Fish joined the police there tended to be one woman on each shift, usually dealing with children or victims of sexual offences, “because obviously you would know about them,” she says sarcastically. Allowances were not made for part-time working. It was understood that if you had children you would leave. 

In recent years, forces have tried to remove barriers to women’s advancement. Flexible hours and part-time work are now options—helpful for women with young children. But motherhood is still stigmatised, with some officers interpreting a woman’s decision to have a baby as a sign that she isn’t committed to the job. Women coming back from maternity leave say they often feel isolated.

One common misconception is that women officers don’t want promotion. Around 30 per cent of police officers in England and Wales are women—admittedly higher than in many comparable countries—but they are much more likely to be constables than higher-ranked officers. John Stevens, Met commissioner from 2000 to 2005, was once told by Northumbria’s chief constable that there was only one woman in each CID office because “women didn’t want to be detectives”. A week later, Stevens asked a gathering of women officers how many wanted to be detectives, and half of them—around four or five hundred—raised their hands. “I think any woman who actually made her way to the top or to reasonable ranks [of the Met] has been far better than the men who were there,” he acknowledges.

Having a woman in charge didn’t solve the problems, though. Dick is spoken about warmly by many former colleagues, and some feel she received unfair blame for a culture that existed long before she took charge. Yet she was unable or unwilling to make the changes necessary to fix the Met’s culture. Several officers I spoke to mentioned their disappointment in the Met’s response to Everard’s murder, in particular the over-policing of the vigil in her memory and advice for women to “flag down a bus” if they were worried about being stopped by a lone officer. The Met was put under special measures in June after its handling of wider police corruption was judged “not fit for purpose”.

Elsewhere, progress has been minimal. Sue Fish, as Nottinghamshire chief constable, began recording misogyny as a hate crime—a pioneering move that London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has also expressed support for. Fish wanted the policy to be rolled out nationally, but Dick didn’t back the idea. Tom Winsor, former chief inspector of the constabulary, argued against the plan, writing in 2021: “There is no such thing as a thought crime… It is not appropriate for senior police officers, serving or retired, to assert a right of the police to declare anything criminal.”

In May this year, the Police Federation’s National Women’s Group held a panel at the Federation’s annual conference, where male officers were urged to reflect on sexism in policing. It was inclusive: the group was “not trying to beat our male colleagues over the head with a stick about the language they use and the way they refer to women colleagues,” says Sam Hawkins, secretary of the group, “but just making them reflect on it.” 

Casual sexism remains common. “If someone’s off sick it’s not unusual for someone to say, ‘Oh, she’s pregnant’,” says the Federation’s Sue Honeywill. It’s assumed that women get jobs because of their sex rather than their achievements. Sexist terminology has evolved, not vanished: a police car containing two female officers used to be nicknamed a “Barbie car”. Now officers call it a “bra car”.

Male-dominated departments and those that interact less with the public have worse behaviour. Traffic and firearms departments are perceived to be among the worst. Some officers defend what they see as gallows humour developed as a response to dangerous situations—perhaps not realising when they cross a line of acceptability. “So many officers probably don’t even think of themselves as misogynistic,” Claire says. “They probably just think it’s all a joke.” 

Some of the worst racism and sexism can now fly under the radar, shared on police-only Facebook pages and Whats-App groups like those used by the Charing Cross officers. Claire, who left the police a few years ago, recalls being added to a WhatsApp group of mostly male officers for a night out. “It was misogynistic gross memes, really distasteful,” she tells me. Akers thinks that social media has just made a longstanding problem, once contained in men-only lunch meetings, more visible: “[Sexism] is probably not a lot different from how it’s always been, it’s just that the availability of social media has put a spotlight on it,” she says.

The need for trust within teams means there is a huge stigma against reporting colleagues, some of whom can be close friends. “Policing can be very all-consuming. If you object… that can be not only professionally but socially and personally devastating,” says Fish.

The people responsible for handling complaints are often close to the offending officers, too. “Those who hold [sexist or racist] views quite often are either Federation reps [tasked with supporting officers accused of serious misconduct] or they’re the loudest on shift,” Fish adds. “No one’s going to take them on because they’re the popular guys.” 

Rose (not her real name), who left the police in 2019, felt she had no one to tell when a senior officer asked her if she would “spit or swallow”. “In normal jobs, HR is a thing. Nobody thinks of HR in the police. It’s like it doesn’t exist.”

Complaints that make it beyond the close-knit nature of a force to the IOPC can take years to be resolved. In 2021, 74 internal complaints for sexual harassment, sexual violence or sexual discrimination were made by female colleagues against male colleagues in the Met alone, according to a Freedom of Information request. Thirty-nine men were suspended or placed on restricted duties while under investigation—but only one so far has received a written warning. Three others await meetings or hearings. 

Fish believes that systems for reporting abuse within the police are not independent enough. “Allegations of sexual or domestic abuse against police officers should be dealt with by another force, not their own force, because they’re all networked and they’re all mates,” she says.

Austerity measures have clipped forces’ capacities to respond to misogyny or discrimination complaints. Conservative governments have cut real-terms police funding by over 20 per cent in the past decade, meaning  experienced officers are now responsible for supervising as many as 18 of their junior colleagues. That leaves them less able to pick up on bad behaviour. 

Allegations of sexual or domestic abuse against police officers should be dealt with by another force. Otherwise, they’re all mates

Supervisors are also younger and less well-trained than they used to be: the new degree-holder entry programme has a low starting salary, meaning older people, many of whom have families, are less likely to join. In the 1980s, new sergeants underwent weeks of residential training in how to manage subordinates. Now, the emphasis is on “self-directed learning”. The Home Office sold off the police staff college a few years ago—a move that King, now principal at St Anne’s College, Oxford, saw as a sign the government was not prioritising training.

Another key question the police are yet to answer is whether the culture of policing itself creates misogynists, or whether misogynists choose to join the police because it is a career through which they can exert authority over women. Deputy chief constable Maggie Blyth, who is co-ordinating the responses of the National Police Chiefs’ Council and College of Policing to violence against women and girls, is examining the issue: “We’re asking questions like, are some police officers—only some—attracted into professions where they have access to vulnerable members of society or the ability to use powers in a wrong or harmful way? I’ve looked at parallels, for example, with paedophiles being attracted into professions where they will have access to children,” she says. Her answer? “We know that [some] level of corruption will happen among some people who are criminally intent.”

Others take her view further. “There is no doubt that policing is attractive to people who want to have power over their fellow citizens and who are thugs or misogynists or sexual predators or bigots of one sort or another,” says King. “And the challenge for policing has always been how do you weed those people out, particularly if they’re smart enough to hide it.” She thinks focusing on vetting officers at the point of application is “a bit of a red herring”: it’s not hard to hide misogynistic views during a few job interviews. Instead, officers’ behaviour could be monitored throughout their careers.

Other policies that could help shift the culture are also yet to be tried. One solution to the misogyny that flourishes in tight teams and subcultures could be to regularly move specialist officers between departments, suggests Blyth. Since Everard’s murder, listening circles, where officers discuss police culture and address discrimination, and “active bystander programmes” have proved popular, Blyth says. “Policing wants to show that it is a service and an organisation that has already reformed and is still rapidly reforming.”

She believes that the government’s recruitment drive to hire 20,000 more officers by 2023 could make a difference. At the last count, she says, 43 per cent of recruits were women—compared with 30 per cent of all officers. “We know that we still see more women in frontline, middle-management positions than we do as senior leaders,” Blyth acknowledges. “But I think the tide is really turning.”

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Illustration by Ben Jones

Detective constable Usha Evans’s face is one of those that has been plastered across London’s transport system as part of the recruitment drive, with the words, “There really is no limit to what you can achieve in the Met.” What the posters don’t say is that Evans made a complaint against the Met in 2015 after a white male officer—who allegedly referred to another ethnic minority female officer as a “fucking witch”—allegedly mocked Evans’s Hindu faith. 

So why has she agreed to be part of this recruitment drive? “There have been bad experiences for me personally [in the police],” Evans says. “I was made to feel that I wasn’t enough—that I didn’t have the skills or I wasn’t the right type of person to be accepted in the Met. And for a long time I believed it.”

“There have been times when I wanted to just go home and not come back to work the next day. You can get defeated by the politics of it all.”

But Evans, who as a teenager felt she couldn’t rely on the police, now wants to use her position as a female and ethnic minority officer to improve the Met from within. With the support of the Met Hindu Association, she has helped to change the force’s uniform policy to include certain religiously significant items—such as her chandlo on the middle of her forehead—a process that took around seven years to implement. She hopes that the recruitment campaign will encourage a more diverse workforce.

The bigger picture, though, is that misogyny remains deeply embedded within the Met and UK policing in a way that harms both officers and the public they are tasked with protecting. So far, police efforts to tackle the problem and rebuild public trust have fallen short. Disciplinary processes are still slow and rarely result in sackings. Female officers feel targeted for speaking out about harassment. It recently emerged that the Met is suing Parm Sandhu, a former senior officer, for making allegations of racism and sexism that the force says broke a non-disclosure agreement.

There is a long way to go. As of July, the UK’s biggest police force has a new leader. Mark Rowley, who was recommended by former home secretary Priti Patel to lead the Met, has plans to recruit more than 100 officers to boost the Met’s professional standards body and has promised to cull “toxic” officers who exhibit misogyny, racism or homophobia. Speaking to the Times, he acknowledged this would be a challenge, saying that while the Met can sack officers who fail vetting, internal police appeals tribunals can reinstate them. That’s a process that Rowley said “seems wrong”. But changing it won’t be easy—“It does feel like some of the cards are stacked against me,” he said.

The odds are stacked against female officers, too. The way Evans sees it, she has two choices in the face of ongoing misogyny and racism: “Either I get frustrated and leave. Or I remember the reason for first joining.”   Officers who want to make a difference are too often driven out of the police by a system that treats them as second-class. Rowley’s challenge—the one Cressida Dick failed—is to support them to stay.