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Top PSNI women concerned at lack of female police officers

By Deborah McAleese

Published 05/05/2015

Superintendent Paula Hilman (right) and Chief Superintendent Barbara Gray at PSNI headquarters
Superintendent Paula Hilman (right) and Chief Superintendent Barbara Gray at PSNI headquarters

Two of Northern Ireland's most senior female police officers have said they are concerned by the under-representation of women in the PSNI.

Chief Superintendent Barbara Gray and Superintendent Paula Hilman said that action needs to be taken to boost the numbers of females within the organisation.

However, the pair stressed that many experienced policewomen are currently making their way up the ranks of the force.

They also insisted that there is nothing to stop ambitious female officers from rising to top posts.

Their comments come just weeks after members of the Policing Board warned that the PSNI was a "male-dominated network".

Following the departure last year of Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie, there are currently no women on the PSNI's top command team. Females also only fill two of 17 Chief Superintendent posts.

The SDLP's Dolores Kelly said the organisation was a "boys' club", while Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane described it as being "male, pale and grey".

However, Supt Hilman said that the issue of female under-representation was a legacy one.

"What we have today is reflective of recruitment 25 years ago. The level of female recruitment 25 years ago was not at the level it is today. Pre-Patten the number of women applying to join the police was 12%, now it is 30%," the PSNI's Deputy Commander for Belfast said.

She added: "You have to consider the time it takes to progress through the ranks. We have to start as a constable and work our way up through the ranks."

Chf Supt Gray, an expert in public order policing, said that while females are still under-represented, the situation is improving. "We have just completed a sergeant and inspector process - the first promotion processes for anyone in seven years - and women have done really well. I think it is a really exciting time," she said.

"We are still under-represented and we need to look at that and address it. But I think we need to also appreciate people's choices. Individual circumstances are different and don't always lend themselves to the dynamic and challenging job that we have."

Concern has also been raised over the high number of female applicants failing the PSNI fitness test.

A recruitment campaign launched in 2013 saw just 67 women securing one of the 353 posts. The PSNI decided to change its fitness test rules and offer a second chance to those who fail it, in a bid to increase the number of successful female candidates.

Previously if a candidate failed the physical they were immediately disqualified from the recruitment process. If the second chance at the physical does not help to increase the number of successful females, the PSNI said it will consider "further radical steps".

Ms Gray said that while the female pass rate was a concern, she warned that "there has to be a level of fitness in the role".

Less than 30% of PSNI officers are currently female. However, pre-Patten female representation was just 12%. The Northern Ireland Policing Board said the issue was a priority and added that within the latest Policing Plan a target had been set "to monitor, report and develop measures to improve under-representation in the service in terms of gender and community background."

‘I was due to have an exam at 8am but had my baby at 3am. I had to defer to the next year’

They are two of the PSNI’s top female officers and first met on the front line at Drumcree. Chief Superintendent Barbara Gray and Superintendent Paula Hilman tell Deborah McAleese about their climb up the ladder

Chief Superintendent  Barbara Gray says:

I was 21 when I joined in January 1989. There was very limited recruitment for women at that time. The roles that we carried out were restricted by the fact we didn’t carry firearms until that changed in 1994. I was frustrated in those first few years because I wasn’t able to carry a firearm. I felt I wasn’t able to contribute fully to what my male colleagues do.

I always had aspirations for climbing the ladder. I never came across any difficulties climbing the ranks being a female — other than, for my inspector’s exam, I was nine months and one week pregnant. I was due to have my exam at 8am but had my baby at 3am that morning. I had to defer to the next year.

The issue of female under-representation is a legacy one, but it is improving. We have just completed a sergeant and inspector process — those have been the first promotion processes for anyone in seven years, and women have done really well. 

We are still under-represented and we need to look at that and address it. But I think we need to also appreciate people’s choices. Individual circumstances are different and don’t always lend themselves to the dynamic and challenging job that we have. It is really difficult for people to juggle. For me, when my two kids were wee, there were definitely difficulties juggling all that. I don’t believe I had to work any harder than my male colleagues to get where I am today.

I think it is wrong to look at the police service as a predominantly male environment. I view it as the operational policing world rather than a male environment.

Superintendent Paula Hilman says:

I joined the police in August 1985. I was 19 and had just finished my A-levels. Being a police officer is what I had always wanted to do.

I trained for 12 weeks in Enniskillen and then started as a constable in Armagh. At that stage, in terms of policing, there were a lot of challenges and certainly Northern Ireland wasn’t the society that we see today.

The recruitment of females back then wouldn’t have been at the level it is today. There was a height requirement at that time. Women had to be 5ft 6ins and men 5ft 8ins. We did, and still do, the same training as men. I remember we had to run carrying telegraph polls. That was part of the force march.

In those days women wore skirts. I remember doing 12-hour vehicle checkpoints and I’d be freezing in my skirt. Being a female has never held me back from climbing the ladder. I was a sergeant at the height of Drumcree. I spent a week at Drumcree at one stage. We were working 18 hours a day. In fact, I think Barbara (Gray) and I first met in a ditch at Drumcree. Now I’m deputy commander in Belfast. I am also a public order commander and tactical firearms commander.

In terms of the number of females in the PSNI, what we have today is reflective of recruitment 25 years ago. The level of female recruitment 25 years ago was not at the level it is today. And you have to consider the time it takes to progress through the ranks. For those of us who have come up over the last 25 to 30 years, those opportunities were there for those who made the choice to go for them.

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