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Who Dreams of Badges? Gendered Self-Concept and Policing Career Aspirations

Published onNov 08, 2021
Who Dreams of Badges? Gendered Self-Concept and Policing Career Aspirations


NIJ’s Policing Research Plan (2017-2022) highlights the need to understand factors that attract diverse candidates. We explored whether college students had ever considered policing and found men were significantly more likely than women to contemplate policing careers. Further, we found higher levels of masculinity were associated with greater odds of policing aspirations; the relationship between gender and aspirations was fully mediated by masculine self-concept. Although men typically reported higher masculinity scores, within-gender analyses indicated that masculinity was important for both men and women. Our findings suggest the continued association of masculinity with policing may undercut efforts to recruit a representative workforce.

Research on differences between male and female police officers is mixed; slight variation can be found between men and women, but in most cases, there is little to no difference reported (Archbold & Schulz, 2012; Poteyeva & Sun, 2009). Early research concerning whether women were “capable” in patrol positions, indicated that they were (Archbold & Schulz, 2012; Bloch & Anderson, 1974; Morash & Greene, 1986; Sichel, Friedman, Quint, & Smith, 1978). Since that time, research has expanded to questions of gender differences in attitudes towards citizens, officer decision-making, support of community policing, use of force, citizen complaints, use of compassion, and communication skills, among others (DeJong, 2004; Rabe-Hemp, 2008; Schuck, 2017; Schuck & Rabe-Hemp, 2005). Though the presence of gender differences depends on the outcomes in question, there is some evidence that having more women on the force can lead to positive changes at the organizational-level (e.g., reductions in sexual harassment for departments with more women; Lonsway, Moore, Harrington, Smeal, & Spillar, 2003). Despite the continued rarity of women in policing, the research on gender differences in policing does not indicate that practices between men and women are clearly distinct from each other.

Though the proportion of women in policing increased from the 1970s through the end of the 20th century, growth in the 21st century has stalled (Cordner & Cordner, 2011; Lonsway, 2006; Lonsway et al., 2002). Reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that although there was a slight increase between 1997 and 2016 in the proportion of women in policing, the percentage of women stayed about the same between 2013-2016 (Hyland & Davis, 2019). Currently, women represent approximately 12% of sworn personnel in local police departments in the United States, with variation by department size (e.g., 17.8% in departments that serve populations over a million vs. 7.3% in departments serving populations under 10,000; Hyland & Davis, 2019). For women of color, the numbers are even bleaker. Only about 5% of full-time sworn personnel in local police departments were Black or Hispanic females (<2% of officers were Black or Hispanic females in departments serving a population of less than 10,000; Hyland & Davis, 2019). Although women first entered policing over a century ago, most departments remain majority male. If we are to increase the representation of women in policing, we must understand more about factors associated with entry and how they might vary for men and women.

From the time they can talk, children are asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. Just like their Halloween costumes, kids’ answers range from fantasy (e.g., superheroes, princesses) to more realistic options such as teachers, firefighters, and police officers. Despite advancements in women’s rights to participate in society and their movement into the workforce, men and women around the world still grow up in societies where career role models are relatively gendered in nature (Evetts, 2000; Jarman, Blackburn, & Racko, 2012; Zagenczyk & Murrell, 2006). One of the first steps to recruiting someone into any career is getting them to imagine themselves in that position. When it comes to policing, it is still more natural for young men than young women to see themselves as officers. Even as many departments continue to move in the direction of community policing, public images and recruitment materials portray a career that is highly militarized and extremely masculine. If young women have trouble imagining themselves as officers, it may be difficult to recruit them.

In the current study, we were interested in the extent to which college students had ever imagined policing as a possible career and whether this differed by gender. We were interested in exploring the extent to which perceptions of their own gender self-concept was related to having considered policing as a career. Below, we look to the aspirations and gender literature as well as research on police culture to provide insight into potential gender differences in policing aspirations.

Literature Review

Gender and Future Orientation

In order to understand the extent to which males and females consider policing as a career we need to appreciate how people think about the future. Future orientation is an umbrella term (Steinberg et al., 2009) that refers to a wide range of conceptual variations of future-associated cognitions, emotions, and behaviors (Greene & DeBacker, 2004; Nurmi, 1991; Steinberg et al., 2009). Possible selves are one conceptual variation of future-oriented cognition that may be valuable in the examination of gender and policing. Possible selves refer to individuals’ self-knowledge about what they would like to become, who they could become, and what they would like to avoid (Markus & Nurius, 1986). These thoughts about the future are often attached to specific images. For example, criminal justice students who hope to enter policing may picture themselves putting on the uniform or graduating from academy training. They may also have fears in which they picture themselves failing the physical exam or messing up the polygraph. Images of future career possibilities may serve to guide or inform behaviors and choices (e.g., what types of classes to take, how risky some behaviors might be).

Possible selves, and general aspirations, are socially constrained, meaning they tend to be restricted to categories made salient by sociocultural contexts (Greene & DeBacker, 2004; Markus & Nurius, 1986). Messages related to future possibilities come from a variety of sources, including social institutions, significant others (e.g., family, friends), and self-evaluation of skills and abilities (Greene & DeBacker, 2004; Markus & Nurius, 1986). The messages individuals receive about what is possible often differ according to demographic characteristics and can be based in stereotypes (Kao, 2000; Konrad, Ritchie, Lieb, & Corrigall, 2000; Oyserman & Fryberg, 2006). For instance, Greene and Debacker (2004) noted pervasive gender differences across varying theoretical and empirical frameworks of future orientation. Thus, when investigating how men and women come to a career in policing, it is important to understand differences in how they think about their futures.

Research highlights differences in content and structure of future imaginings of men and women. Women tend to be more diverse than men in their possible selves and goals (Greene & DeBacker, 2004). They “try on more hats” or focus on multiple aspects of life when they consider the future. Women place more emphasis on connections to others and imagine futures that better balance family and career (Brown & Diekman, 2010; Greene & DeBacker, 2004; Lips, 2004). Young women tend to report more future-oriented fears than men and are more likely to believe those fears will come true (Greene & DeBacker, 2004; Knox, Funk, Elliott, & Bush, 2000). Some research suggests that women’s possible selves may be more sensitive to social contexts and experiences of others (Kemmelmeier & Oyserman, 2001). Given the importance of social context, gender socialization and messages about police culture may influence the extent to which young women consider policing as an option.

Gender Schema

One of the primary reasons cited for gender differences in values, beliefs, or behaviors is that boys and girls are socialized differently and expected to follow different norms. That is, individuals are taught that certain norms exist according to gender and those who follow them are rewarded while those who do not may be sanctioned or devalued (Ellemers, 2018). Sandra Bem (1981) suggested that, as a society, we communicate expectations about what traits or behaviors are associated with boys and girls and how those might situate a person on the continuums of masculinity or femininity. From an early age, children learn whether they are a boy or a girl and what behaviors, colors, activities, words, and so forth are associated with that label. Gender norm adherence is reinforced as children learn that there are consequences (e.g., teasing, ostracization) for violating the norms. They receive messages about variations in masculinity or femininity and learn that there are special terms, some offensive, for boys or girls who don’t “act like” boys or girls (e.g., tomboys, sissies). By preschool, children learn which toys are socially acceptable according to their gender and start to recognize which jobs are “for” adult males and females (Chambers, Kashefpakdel, Rehill, & Percy, 2018). With the passage of time, girls and boys become more diverse in their career expectations and preferences, yet, gender stereotypes maintain a stronghold (Chambers et al., 2018; Konrad et al., 2000; Sandberg, Ehrhardt, Ince, & Meyer-Bahlburg, 1991).

Of course, not every child follows society’s prescription of what it means to be a boy or a girl; some even see stereotypes as challenges to overcome. Prescriptions about gender inform schema that can impact beliefs and behaviors, even for individuals who do not buy into them (Correll, 2004; Fiske, 1998). Bem (1981) suggested that some individuals are more sensitive to environmental messages about masculinity and femininity. Specifically, “sex-typed individuals are seen as differing from other individuals … in terms of whether or not their self-concepts and behaviors are organized on the basis of gender” (Bem, 1981, p. 356). Sex-typed men would likely see policing as an option that fits with their understanding of masculinity, whereas sex-typed women would be unlikely to see policing as fitting with their understanding of femininity. More androgynous individuals (i.e., identify with characteristics of masculinity and femininity), may feel less constrained by gender norms and more open to occupations outside traditional gender divides. That said, cultural messages about what is or is not appropriate along continuums of masculinity/femininity, are not the only ones that impact cognitions and behaviors. Research in areas of stereotype threat and self-assessment indicate that messages about what men and women are supposedly good at can transcend personal desires and gender identity.

Cultural messages do not just suggest that boys like blue or girls like pink and that these things are required for “fitting in”—they also indicate the extent to which boys or girls are supposedly better or worse at certain tasks. Even if individuals do not believe these messages (e.g., that boys are better at math), research has shown they can still impact self-assessments (Correll, 2001, 2004; Eccles, 1994). For example, if gender is salient, men will overestimate, and women will underestimate, their own competence even with similar levels of ability and feedback (Correll, 2004). Biased self-assessments can also impact one’s aspirations about future career-relevant activities (Correll, 2004). Policing, as a career, is associated with several gender-relevant messages. Masculinity and physical strength are common themes associated with policing (Herbert, 1998; Loftus, 2010) and due to the often token-status of women in the field, gender remains habitually salient. Even if girls and young women take an interest in policing (i.e., get past messages suggesting it is a man’s occupation), their aspirations could still be constrained by gendered self-assessments regarding their abilities to fulfill the job (e.g., “Am I physically strong enough to be a police officer?”).

Masculinity in Policing

A significant proportion of officers’ time on the job is spent engaging in order maintenance and social service tasks (Parks, Mastrofski, DeJong, & Gray, 1999; Rhodes, 2015; Smith, Novak, & Frank, 2001). Further, emotional labor and social/emotional intelligence are vital aspects of effective public service, especially in policing (Newman, Guy, & Mastracci, 2009). Many of these are tasks and skills that might be considered traditionally feminine or “better suited” to women. Despite the substantial time commitment, tasks that prioritize skills such as empathy and communication are not often associated with, or symbolic of, policing. This is problematic for young women, especially those interested in helping fields. Although some of their traditionally “feminine” strengths and interests may actually be well-suited to policing, this message is unlikely to make it to them and thus policing may not enter into their imagined career possibilities.

The public image of police work and culture is rooted in hegemonic masculinity, which refers to a pattern of practices that facilitate men’s dominance and project the “ideal” worker as male (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Silvestri, 2018). The ideal police officer is focused on law enforcement and embodies the traditional crime-fighter image (e.g., a masculine hero-like figure that chases down bad guys and protects those who are fragile; Martin, 1999; Paoline, 2003; Pew Research Center, 2017). The emphasis on physicality, competitiveness, patriarchal attitudes, and a lack of emotionality have long been reinforced and used as “rational” arguments to keep women out of law enforcement (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Fielding, 1994; Prokos & Padavic, 2002; Silvestri, 2018). The masculine presentation and emphasis may communicate to young women not yet in the field that policing is still mainly a job for men and/or that they have to be willing to assimilate to a masculinity-driven culture. Ironically, part of the assimilation process may mean accepting their place in the less glamorous roles of policing. Early on, women were not allowed to do “real policing” but instead were relegated to working only with children and women in the community (Corsianos, 2009; Milton, 1972). Even today, as women have been integrated into the “crime-fighter role” they are still often pushed into tasks that are “less masculine”. For instance, female officers often work with sexual assault or domestic violence victims and complete order maintenance tasks (Rabe-Hemp, 2008; Shelley, Morabito, & Tobin-Gurley, 2011), yet are less likely to occupy ‘highly masculine’ leadership roles or work in specialized units such as dog handling, investigation, or SWAT (Boni, 2002; Silvestri, 2007, 2018).

Although many departments have removed “masculine language and instruction”, signs of the masculine work culture remain prevalent during recruitment and training processes (Martin & Jurik, 1996). Particularly, testing, hiring, and training processes are designed to remove those who do not meet the stereotypical image of middle-class, white male (Todak, 2017). For example, the physical fitness test, a hallmark of the application process, often has gendered outcomes which further reinforce the masculine nature of the job, despite little evidence that it predicts success (Schulze, 2012). Even if the curriculum is gender-neutral, new officers may learn subtle gendered lessons through training and informal socialization (e.g., women as outsiders, sexual objects, and not to be taken seriously; Prokos & Padavic, 2002).

Women who enter policing, and other traditionally male career fields, must find ways to manage masculine subcultures and their own identities. On the one hand, men and women are typically socialized to adhere to gender-specific traits whereby women may not be directly socialized toward pursuing a policing career. On the other hand, in a patriarchal society, everyone learns that masculine traits are considered superior to feminine traits and, to some extent, are expected to conform to certain types of masculinity while downplaying feminine characteristics (Rogers, Yang, Way, Weinberg, & Bennet, 2019). Thus, some women may be attracted to policing partially due to the power associated with the masculine and anti-feminine images of policing. However, integration into the field is not as simple as downplaying the feminine while embracing the masculine. As Martin (1979) points out, a female officer that moves too far in the direction of masculinity may be seen as a threat, but if she moves too far in the direction of femininity she may receive fewer advancement opportunities and receive gendered assignments (e.g., victim units). Thus, many women have learned to simultaneously navigate doing police work and doing gender—maintaining personal femininity while being effective law enforcement officers (Morash & Haarr, 2012; Rabe-Hemp, 2009). Despite successes in bridging gender and policework, the motivation for women to pursue policing may still be hindered by associations of masculinity. The bottom line is that the centrality of masculinity in policing is likely to keep women who may be well-suited to the occupation from ever actually seeing policing as a possibility and those that do will have challenges to manage in order to integrate successfully.

Policing-Specific Motives and Gender

Though we are focused on those who have yet to become police officers, a small number of researchers have explored racial and gender variation in why those already on the job decided to join (Lester, 1983; Raganella & White, 2004; Tarng & Hsieh, 2001; White, Cooper, Saunders, & Raganella, 2010). For example, both men and women consistently rate helping people as one of the top motivations for joining, though women often rate it as slightly more important (Lester, 1983; Raganella & White, 2004; White et al., 2010). Raganella, White, and colleagues (2004; 2010) studied entry motivations among police recruits at the New York Police Department and followed up six years later with the same population. They found that although some motives had moved up or down in importance over time, neither survey found major differences by race or gender. In addition to helping motives, other research has also identified job security and excitement of the job as important for women (Seklecki & Paynich, 2007; Todak, 2017).

The primary takeaway from this research is that there are more similarities than differences when men and women are asked why they joined the force. It is important to note that these investigations focus primarily on academy recruits or officers who are already on the job (see for exception; Todak, 2017). These samples include men and women who wanted to join and who were hired. Thus, we can assume they are likely more similar to each other than to people who have not applied or been hired. If we want to recruit a more diverse police force, it is important to understand more about the “pre-career” motives of potential candidates and differences according to gender.

Current Study

In order for police departments to evolve and better represent the communities they serve, it is imperative that we find ways to integrate women into the field. Prior research on career motivation relies primarily on officers who are already in the field. However, there is more to learn about those women (and men) who are not yet part of the candidate pool but could be someday. Gaining a nuanced understanding of young men’s and women’s aspirations to pursue careers in policing, and how masculinity influences these pursuits, may reveal useful recommendations to police departments struggling to recruit and retain female officers (Copple, 2017). We were interested in the extent to which male and female college students had ever considered policing as a possible career choice. Toward this end, we propose the following research questions and hypotheses.

Research Question 1: What is the relationship between gender, masculine self-concept, and lifetime policing aspirations?

Hypothesis 1a: Female college students will be less likely than males to report having considered a career in policing. Based on the underrepresentation of women in policing and previous research indicating that career aspirations are still relatively gendered (Cambareri & Kuhns, 2018; Chambers et al., 2018; Correll, 2004; Eccles, 1994; Hyland & Davis, 2019), we anticipated that males would be more likely than females to report current or past aspirations of policing. Even though men and women are socialized from an early age towards different values, behaviors, and career paths, some individuals have more variation in their own gender self-concept and may be less constrained by “traditional” messages about gender. Thus, we were interested in the extent to which individuals’ gender self-concept might also be associated with having considered policing as a career option.

Hypothesis 1b: Students with higher reported levels of masculine self-concept will be more likely to report having considered a career in policing. Due to the emphasis on masculinity in policing, we expected individuals with higher masculinity scores to be more likely to report having considered a career in policing. Further at least one study found that police applicants, both male and female, scored higher on masculinity than a comparison sample of high school students (Lord & Friday, 2003). Toward this end, we explore whether masculine self-concept mediates the association between gender and policing aspirations.

Hypothesis 1c: Masculinity will partially explain the association between gender and policing aspirations. Though we expected to find gender differences in policing aspirations we do not believe that any differences in policing aspirations are biologically determined. Instead, research indicates that socialization differences and societal norm adherence can help explain aspirational differences. Due to the strong themes of masculinity in policing and the probability that men are more likely than women to be socialized to adopt a masculine identity we expect that adoption of this identity may partially explain differences in policing aspirations. Men and women can vary in the extent to which they view themselves as masculine though, typically, men are socialized to see themselves as more masculine than women, and vice versa. Further, in patriarchal societies some masculine characteristics are highly desired among both men and women. Thus, we wanted to know whether masculine self-concept could partially explain any gender differences in policing aspirations.

Research Question 2: What is the relationship between gender, masculine self-concept, and the likelihood of encouraging a friend/family member to pursue policing?

Finally, we wanted to rule out the possibility that any relationships found in the analysis of Hypotheses 1a-1c could be explained by underlying gender differences in the extent to which college-aged men and women see policing as a “good” career. Thus, we also explored the relationships between gender, masculine self-concept, and the willingness to recommend policing to others. If women are less likely than men to report that they would encourage a friend to pursue policing that could indicate that they are less likely to see policing as a legitimate career path, in general, which may partly explain why they don’t aspire towards policing careers themselves. Thus, in addition to policing aspirations, we also examined gender and masculinity in relation to encouraging policing for friends/family. As this research question is not the primary question but a way to test alternative explanations for our primary analysis, we did not have a priori hypotheses regarding significance or direction of the variable relationships.



Our data is derived from an online survey of students enrolled at two Midwestern universities during the 2017-2018 academic year. All data collection procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board. Instructors of record teaching in-person courses in the largest colleges (i.e., business, education, arts and sciences, human services) were contacted via email at the first university in Fall 2017. The email described the study and queried whether instructors would be willing to provide class time for the researcher to speak to their students and complete the online survey. The same procedures were applied for students enrolled in criminology and criminal justice courses in Spring 2018 at the second university. Some instructors who could not devote class time to the survey agreed to post a study description and link to the online survey on their course websites (e.g., BlackBoard, Canvas). No personally-identifying information was collected, thus rendering participation anonymous. While student samples have limitations (see Peterson, 2001; Peterson & Merunka, 2014; Weicko, 2010), the research questions in the current study assess career aspirations—which are especially relevant to students who have not yet begun their professional careers. Seven-hundred and seventeen students completed the survey1. The analytic sample was 52% female, 72% White, 7% Black, 13% Hispanic, and the average age was 21 years old (SD = 4.51). The demographic characteristics of the sample were similar to demographics of each university. Approximately 40% of respondents were criminal justice majors. Descriptive statistics for the sample by gender are presented in Table 1.


Outcomes. Two outcomes were utilized in analyses: aspirations for a career in policing and willingness to encourage others to pursue a career in policing. A single item was used to assess aspirations for a career in policing. Respondents were asked “have you ever, even as a young child, considered becoming a police officer?”. Participants answered on a four-point scale (1 = definitely not to 4 = definitely yes); categories were collapsed into a binary response (1 = yes, 0 = no) for analysis purposes. The second outcome, willingness to encourage others to pursue a career in policing, was also assessed with a single item: “would you encourage a friend or family member to be a police officer?”. Responses were measured on a five-point scale (1=definitely not, 5= definitely yes). Approximately 61% of respondents indicated aspirations to pursue a career in policing. On average, students indicated a willingness to encourage others to pursue careers as officers (X\overline{X} = 3.20, SD = 1.14).

Independent variables. The primary predictors of interest were female gender and masculine identity. Female gender was a dummy variable (1 = female, 0 = male)2. Although we utilize gender as a dichotomous predictor (male/female) in our study we do not assume resulting variable relationships or gender differences are biologically based. In other words, we argue that the differences we are interested in are socially produced and thus use gender terminology in lieu of sex (Stewart & McDermott, 2004; Unger, 1979). Masculine identity was assessed with a single item (“please rate how masculine you consider yourself”) on an 11-point scale (0=Not at all masculine, 10=Extremely masculine). On average, respondents considered themselves to be somewhat masculine (X\overline{X} = 5.32, SD = 3.05).

Control variables. We controlled for several variables which may influence career aspirations in policing and willingness to encourage friends/family to pursue a career in policing. We controlled for college major, having family or friends who were officers, age, race, and campus. Criminal justice major was a dummy variable (1 = criminal justice major) indicating whether respondents were criminal justice majors. Friends/family members who are police officers was a dummy variable (1= yes) indicating whether respondents had friends or family members who were police officers. Age is a continuous variable reflecting respondents’ age in years. Finally, a series of dummy variables were utilized to control for respondent race/ethnicity (non-Hispanic White, non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, and other non-Hispanic race/ethnicity). University was a dummy variable (1 = University 1, 0 = University 2) indicating from which campus students originated3.

Analytic Strategy

In order to answer our first research question, we conducted a series of Logistic regressions to test the relationship between gender, masculine identity, and career aspirations. For our second research question, we conducted a series of OLS regressions to explore the relationship between gender, masculine identity, and encouraging others to pursue policing careers. There was evidence of heteroskedasticity in our OLS models so we use conservative estimates with robust standard errors for all of our analyses. Because criminal justice majors represented a significant proportion of our sample (40%), we explored criminal justice major interactions with our primary variables of interest (i.e., criminal justice major X gender; criminal justice major X masculinity). Formal mediation tests were conducted with the -paramed- STATA command to assess whether the effect of gender on career aspirations and career recommendations operated indirectly through masculine identity utilizing bootstrapped standard errors (BSE) and 95% bias-corrected confidence intervals (BCCI) (5,000 replications) (Emsley & Liu, 2013; VanderWeele & Vansteelandt, 2014).


Descriptive statistics by gender, presented in Table 1, provide some indication of gender differences in our sample. More men (73%) than women (50%) had ever considered a career in policing. Further, men reported higher levels of masculine self-concept (M = 7.60, SD = 1.62) than women in the sample (M = 3.17, SD = 2.46). Men in our sample were slightly more likely than women to be white.

Results from the Logistic regression models predicting policing career aspirations are presented in Table 24. Model 1 contains coefficients for control variables and gender. As expected, gender was negatively related to policing career aspirations. Female students were less likely to aspire to policing careers than male students. Additionally, students majoring in criminal justice or who have friends or family members working in policing were more likely to indicate that they had considered a career in policing themselves. Having considered a career in policing decreased slightly with age. As criminal justice major and gender were both strong predictors and because criminal justice majors were a significant portion of our sample, we further explored the possibility of a gender by major interaction. The interaction was significant (Model 1a) and is displayed in Figure 1. The findings in Model 1a show that college major moderates the effect of gender on law enforcement career aspirations. That is, while both male and female criminal justice majors were more likely to report considering a career in law enforcement than non-criminal justice majors, the gap between men and women was greater for criminal justice majors than non-criminal justice majors. Further, men who did not major in criminal justice were just as likely to consider (or not) a career in policing as women who did major in criminal justice.

Model 2 considers masculine identity in place of gender. Masculine identity is positively related to policing career aspirations indicating that students who perceive themselves as more masculine were more likely to report having considered careers in policing. As with Model 1, age, major, and having friends or family in policing were significantly associated with aspirations. Again, we explored the possibility of a criminal justice major interaction. The non-significant interaction in Model 2a indicates that the relationship between masculine self-concept and policing aspirations did not vary according to whether students were majoring in criminal justice.

Model 3 presents findings from the full model including gender and masculine identity.5 The significant direct effect of gender observed in Model 1 is no longer significant in Model 3, providing tentative evidence that masculine identity mediates the effect of gender on policing career aspirations. Results from formal mediation analyses indicated that there was a statistically significant indirect effect of gender, which operated through masculine self-concept, on policing career aspirations.

The next set of OLS regressions (Table 3) examined willingness to encourage others to pursue a career in policing. Contrary to the findings for aspirations in Table 2, we did not find a significant effect for gender in this analysis. Similar to the findings for the first research question, being a criminal justice major was a strong predictor of encouraging others to pursue policing careers. Having family or friends in policing was also positively associated with recommending policing as a career. As self-rated masculinity increased, so did the likelihood of recommending policing to a friend (Model 2). Black students were less likely than white students to encourage the pursuit of policing careers. Further, the criminal justice major interactions were not significant (Model 1a & 2a) and there was not a significant indirect effect of gender through masculinity (Model 3). In other words, gender does not operate indirectly through masculine identity to influence encouraging others to pursue careers in policing.


Policing Aspirations

Despite significant increases in women’s representation in policing in the last three decades of the 20th century, growth has stalled in the 21st century. Therefore, we must attempt to understand why women get involved in policing and how we might encourage more women to join. Though it is true that not everyone that imagines an occupation pursues it, it is also true that in order to pursue an occupation, one must first imagine it. Our primary interest was in the relationships between gender, masculine self-concept, and lifetime aspirations of policing. We hypothesized (1a) that female college students would be more likely than male college students to report having considered a career in policing. Our results (Table 2, Model 1) supported this hypothesis, indicating that, holding all else constant, college men’s odds for having considered a career in policing were approximately 3 times higher than women’s. This finding indicates that a partial explanation of the gender gap in policing is that it remains segregated with regards to the extent that males and females see it as a future job possibility.

The public image of policing has long been rooted in hegemonic masculinity and the “ideal worker” is portrayed through masculine themes of physicality, competitiveness, and subdued emotionality. Despite increased focus on community-oriented approaches and efforts to make policies and training materials more gender neutral, masculinity is still central to the culture of policing (Brown, 2007). As such, we hypothesized (1b) that individuals who identified as more masculine would be more likely to have considered a career in policing. Our hypothesis was supported (Table 2, Model 2), indicating that a one-unit increase in masculinity is associated with a 25% increase in the odds of having considered a career in policing. This finding was true both in a pooled sample and when we explored separate models for males and females6; thus, higher scores on masculinity increased the odds of policing aspirations for both males and females. These findings provide evidence that policing is still seen as a masculine career and only individuals (men or women) who see themselves as masculine are likely to be attracted to policing. That is, masculinity may be seen as a prerequisite for a career in policing.

Thus far, our results indicated that policing is a career more often considered by men and by those (men and women) who see themselves as more masculine. While neither of these are surprising given what we know about policing, it is still important to verify general assumptions with empirical evidence. In order to make progress, it is not enough to know that differences exist between men and women. To understand how to move the needle, we must be able to explain why differences exist. We hypothesized (1c) that a partial explanation for gender differences in policing aspirations are due to differences in masculinity. That is, we expected masculinity to mediate the relationship between gender and policing aspirations. Our hypothesis (1c) was supported; when both masculinity and gender were included in the logistic regression model, gender was no longer significant. However, there was a significant indirect effect of gender through masculinity. Our results suggest that the overreliance of masculine themes in policing is one explanatory factor in the continued gender gap.

Because criminal justice (CJ) majors represented a significant proportion of our sample, we thought it important to explore potential interactions between major and our primary variables of interest (i.e., gender and masculinity). In most of our analyses, interactions with major were not significant suggesting gender and masculinity as predictors were not dependent upon major. However, we did find a significant interaction between gender and major in the prediction of career aspirations (Table 2, Model 1a and Figure 1). As might be expected, criminal justice majors (whether male or female) were more likely than non-criminal justice majors to have considered a policing career. Interestingly, men who were not criminal justice majors were not significantly different from female criminal justice majors in reported aspirations. These results indicate that targeting criminal justice departments at colleges and universities could be an important strategy for attracting women who have at least thought about a career in policing. That said, there remains a significant gap between aspirations of men and women even among those that are majoring in criminal justice with men being much more likely to have considered a career in policing. This finding suggests that the gendered nature of policing is still a likely deterrent for even those women who are majoring in the closely aligned field of criminal justice. Thus, agencies looking to recruit women police officers need to recognize and address this in their recruiting strategies.

Recommending Policing to Others

The popularity of policing as a career has decreased over the last few years, in part, due to the legitimacy crisis, representing lowered public trust in police, especially by racial minorities (Jones, 2014, 2015; PERF, 2019). Consequently, we wanted to explore the possibility that gender differences in policing aspirations could be related to underlying gender differences in the perception of policing as a good career. In other words, if women are simply less likely to see policing as a legitimate career (for anyone), it might also explain why women are less likely to see policing as a valid option for themselves. However, we did not find a gender difference in the extent to which participants reported they would encourage others to pursue a career in policing (Table 3, Model 1). This finding is informative when considered in relation to our findings on career aspirations. Women were significantly less likely than men to have considered a career in policing, but there was not a significant difference between women and men when it came to encouraging policing as a career to others. This finding suggests that gendered differences in career aspirations are not necessarily due to the extent to which women see policing as a legitimate career path, but rather as a difference in the extent to which they see it as a fit for themselves. Masculine self-concept, however, was a significant predictor of the willingness to encourage others to explore a career in policing (Table 3, Model 2). Therefore, people who see themselves as more masculine may be more likely to see policing as a valid career option, reinforcing the idea that the masculine norms of policing are central to perception. Relatively speaking, the effects of masculine self-concept were a stronger predictor of one’s own career aspirations.

Although unrelated to our research question it is important to note that we found some race effects. Specifically, Black students were significantly less likely than White students to say that they would encourage others to pursue a career in policing. Our findings are not surprising in light of evidence from polls suggesting waning confidence (Jones, 2014, 2015; Kluch, 2018) and negative feelings (Fingerhut, 2017) toward police among people of color in a Post-Ferguson society. Research suggests that black citizens are less satisfied with police than white citizens (Weitzer & Tuch, 2006), more distrustful of police (Carr, Napolitano, & Keating, 2007; Tyler, 2005), believe police mistreat them (Brunson, 2007; Warren, 2008), and perceive more injustices in the criminal justice system than Whites (Hagan, Shedd, & Payne, 2005; Hurwitz & Peffley, 2005). Our findings for race suggest that police departments looking to recruit racially diverse applicants may have to overcome contextual difficulties (i.e., declining confidence). Further, just as masculinity mediated the relationship between gender and aspirations, it would be worth investigating police legitimacy concerns as a potential mediator of race effects on the likelihood of recommending or pursuing policing careers. Finally, majoring in criminal justice and having friends and family in policing were important to both aspirations and encouraging others. More research is necessary to understand the intervening mechanisms and the extent to which they might interact with gender and race.

Implications and Future Research

The current research has implications for attracting women to policing but may also pose questions about overall recruitment strategies. The fact that masculine identity was a strong predictor of policing aspirations could be interpreted and utilized in several ways. While some might consider an implication of our findings to be the recruitment of women who are assumed to be more masculine, we do not believe this to be an implication of our findings. The goal should not be to find candidates that can align themselves to the traditional status quo. Instead, to recruit a diverse workforce that is representative of the larger population, agencies must think more broadly and consider what skills are needed for policing in the 21st century (Clinkinbeard & Rief, 2020). Rather, we might question the extent to which masculinity should be a characteristic that we actively pursue in policing. In other words, do we really want the most masculine people to fill out the workforce? Given legitimacy issues surrounding use of force and police misbehavior, police departments might be well served by prioritizing practices that attract people who are relational and good communicators (i.e., traits that are more often linked to femininity). This could even mean rethinking or revising the focus of the application and selection process. Further, recent research has linked adherence to masculine norms to poorer social psychological well-being for both men and women (Rogers et al., 2019). Thus, those who adhere to masculine norms may also be less likely to cope well with the stressful aspects of the job.

Despite popularity of the masculine crime fighter image in policing, a significant proportion of police work is spent in order maintenance and service activities, especially in departments focused on community policing (Parks et al., 1999; Rhodes, 2015; Smith et al., 2001). Yet, recruitment materials and presentations often highlight the physical, masculine, thrill-inducing aspects of the job (Aiello, 2014; Jolicoeur & Grant, 2018), all of which may be attractive, but not necessarily representative of daily life on the job. Further, departments are inconsistent in their use of targeted recruitment strategies (Cordner & Cordner, 2011). Some departments have found success by trying a variety of strategies such as offering child care, student loan assistance, or building partnerships with universities through internships, career demonstrations, and recruitment at job fairs (PERF, 2019). Though not necessarily recruitment strategies, research suggests that certain types of departments (e.g., those with higher education requirements, departments serving more diverse populations, those with no physical fitness screening criteria) may be more likely to attract gender diversity (Schuck, 2014).

Although women are less likely to consider or imagine a career in policing, it is not incompatible with their general preferences. A meta-analysis of sex differences in job attribute preferences noted that one of the largest differences across studies was women’s greater preferences to have “opportunities to help people” (Konrad et al., 2000). Coincidentally, “helping people” is consistently ranked at or near the top of the most influential reasons for joining a career in policing (Foley, Guarneri, & Kelly, 2008; Lester, 1983; Raganella & White, 2004; Seklecki & Paynich, 2007; Todak, 2017; White et al., 2010). To recruit more women, it might be important to use strategies that emphasize service-related and community policing aspects of the job. Young women in our study were just as willing as men to suggest that they would encourage others to pursue policing, but were less likely to consider it for themselves. Further, masculinity also predicted policing aspirations among men. Police departments should consider how they can better connect to young girls and women, as well as boys and men, that do not consider themselves highly masculine, sending the message that policing can be for them. Police departments should also convey that women are accepted and that they can find success and fulfillment in policing (Cambareri & Kuhns, 2018). This might mean highlighting the aspects of policing where feminine characteristics are important. It might also mean starting earlier with the recruitment process as some research indicates that career aspirations tend to be somewhat stable across adolescence and early adulthood (Low, Yoon, Roberts, & Rounds, 2005). Importantly, all of these potential strategies need to be evaluated to understand what works best.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that recruiters needs to ignore the masculine aspects of the job or that masculinity is inherently bad. Motives research indicates that the law enforcement activities and “excitement” of the job are attractive to both men and women (Raganella & White, 2004; Seklecki & Paynich, 2007; Todak, 2017; White et al., 2010). Instead, we suggest that it might be wise to present a more balanced picture of what it takes to be an effective officer, both in recruitment and socialization. A balanced approach to recruitment and marketing might not only be more successful at targeting underrepresented groups but more transparent (PERF, 2019). Officers drawn to policing for the adrenaline-inducing, hyper-masculine aspects may be disappointed when they find that much of their time is spent helping citizens with minor issues, writing traffic tickets, filling out paperwork and so on. To some who might argue that a balanced approach could turn off men, exacerbating workforce shortages, we suggest an overreliance on masculinity may turn off more than just women, supported by our finding that masculinity was positively associated with aspirations of both men and women in our sample.


We utilized a convenience sample of college students on two campuses within a single university system, of whom 40% reported being criminal justice majors. It is also important to note that our measure of policing aspirations was retrospective. It is possible that participants may have dreamed at one point in their lives about being police officers but simply did not remember doing so. Additionally, due to the cross-sectional/retrospective nature of our data, time-order could be questioned. It is possible, for example, rather than masculine self-concept influencing aspirations that the reverse is true. That is, individuals may base their self-perceptions of masculinity on assessments of their own skills and interests (e.g., policing is masculine, and I like policing so I must be masculine), though our interpretations aligned with theory and previous empirical work. Further, masculinity remained significant even after accounting for the strong effects of major and having friends or family in law enforcement. Longitudinal research is necessary to fully understand the development of policing aspirations over the life course.

Finally, we utilized a single-item indicator of masculinity, thus we could not examine different types of masculinity as they relate to policing aspirations. However, many masculinity measures (e.g., Bem, 1974; Spence, Helmreich, & Stapp, 1974) assume certain personality characteristics make you masculine or feminine. A strength of our measure is that the interpretation of masculinity was left to participants; they were reporting on the extent to which they consider themselves masculine. Replication with additional samples and measures of masculinity would add confidence, and likely nuance, to our findings. With the straightforward approach utilized in our data, we were likely tapping how individuals feel they fit with stereotypical views of masculinity. Future research should consider how different types of gender ideologies might relate to career aspirations.


The NIJ’s Policing Research Plan for 2017-2022 identifies workforce development as priority number one. In particular, it emphasizes the importance of research on “factors that influence and motivate members of the workforce…and attract viable candidates to the policing profession” (NIJ, 2017). Future orientation literature tells us that we learn what our future could include from both cultural messages and role models. A long history of gender socialization and salience of masculinity in the culture of policing may combine to inhibit the aspirations well-suited individuals. Our research indicates (1) women are still less likely than men to consider policing as an option, (2) masculinity influences policing aspirations for both men and women (i.e., more masculine = more likely to consider policing), and (3) the relationship between gender and policing aspirations is mediated by masculinity (i.e., men see themselves as more masculine which partially explains their higher levels of policing aspirations). At the same time, men were no more likely than women to recommend policing as career for others, indicating that men and women see it as equally valid, but women are just less likely to see themselves fitting into it. Therefore, something must be done to shift the public images and role models if we are to recruit a more representative police force. Future research should expand its focus on what draws men and women to the field of policing, how policing interests and aspirations evolve over the life course, and barriers that might prevent women and men from pursuing policing ambitions.


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