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Female cop tipped for one of PSNI's top jobs, but fears of gender disparity remain

By Deborah McAleese

Published 26/03/2016

Chief Superintendent Barbara Gray (left) preparing for a PSNI training exercise at Ballykinler Army Base
Chief Superintendent Barbara Gray (left) preparing for a PSNI training exercise at Ballykinler Army Base
Chief Superintendent Pauline Shields
Detective Superintendent Karen Baxter

One of Northern Ireland's most senior female police officers has been tipped for promotion to Assistant Chief Constable.

Chief Superintendent Barbara Gray, an expert in public order policing, has just successfully completed a national senior command policing course, which makes her eligible to apply for the high-ranking post.

If appointed, she would become the second woman to reach chief officer rank. Retired Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie (below) became the organisation's first female Assistant Chief Constable in 2004, before she was promoted in 2009 to Deputy Chief Constable.

Ms Gillespie retired two years ago. Since then, there have been no female chief officers.

However, there have been attempts to address the gender imbalance at the top of the PSNI.

Recent promotion opportunities have seen a growing number of female officers rising through the ranks.

Some of the top female officers within the force include Ms Gray, Chief Superintendent Pauline Shields, Superintendent Paula Hilman and Detective Superintendent Karen Baxter.

The PSNI recently advertised for a new Assistant Chief Constable, and according to a police source Ms Gray is one of the favourites for the post.

"Barbara is very well liked and highly thought of within the organisation," the source said.

"She is highly respected at all levels and her rise would be very much welcomed. She has a lot of support."

Policing Board member Dolores Kelly, who last year warned that the PSNI was a "boys' club", said she was pleased at the recent rise of female officers through the ranks.

"The PSNI should reflect the community it serves, and therefore should have greater numbers of women around the senior command table," she said. "The increasing number of females making their way up the ladder is a welcome development."

However, there remains concern that women make up less than 30% of the police officer workforce.

Recent recruitment campaigns have been geared towards attracting more women to the PSNI. Changes were also made to the physical assessment test for new recruits to make it fairer for female applicants.

However, in November it emerged that twice as many men as women had applied to join in recent recruitment campaigns.

Ms Kelly said the PSNI must find a way to address the gender imbalance.

"Young aspiring female officers need to have role models and see that the organisation is serious about addressing gender imbalance," the SDLP MLA said.

Policing expert Dr Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the Ulster University, said that the Patten reforms placed strong emphasis on the need for proper accountability to the community the police serve "by ensuring that their composition was not dissimilar to the society in which they policed". "Therefore, it is crucial that the organisation with the support of the Policing Board does all that it can to encourage women to join the PSNI," he added.

Despite warnings over the gender imbalance, female representation in the PSNI today is double what it was pre-Patten. Pre-Patten just 12% of the force was female. Today women make up almost 30% of the organisation.

Belfast Telegraph

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