Women make up less than a quarter of local police forces but OPP aims to eliminate barriers for applicants

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

Ontario Provincial Police are looking to bring more women into the force, an ongoing goal that can sometimes be a challenge.

An upcoming West Region Policing Symposium in March is focused on educating women about the hiring process and what it’s like to be a member of the OPP.

“We have numerous retirements coming up. We’re not just hiring women,” said Const. Gloria Yu, a recruiter with the West Region OPP. “We always, always only hire the most suitable and competitive applicants.”

But hosting the female-focused event is a reflection of the OPP priority to "reflect the diverse communities that we serve," Yu said. Talking to women about joining the ranks is important, Yu said, especially since far fewer females apply to join the OPP compared to men.

“Our targeted recruitment strategy is to eliminate any barriers that applicants may have. That could be systemic, geographic, family, cultural, whatever it may be,” she said.

That's part of the goal behind the symposium on March 8, as well as a number of virtual events in the lead up.

“(We want to) smash down and eliminate any barriers that may be preventing them from applying and considering a policing career,” Yu said.

Women are an essential part of any police department, said Const. Nikki VanLeeuwen with the Woodstock Police Service.

“The boys here at the police department do need women, whether they believe it or not,” she said with a chuckle. “We bring different skills to the table.”

But though many recognize the need for a diverse police force, in reality the numbers are not so balanced.

Women make up less than a quarter of police forces in Woodstock and Oxford.

There are 13 females and 55 males in the Woodstock Police Service, which means women make up less than 18 per cent of uniformed staff.

“We just don’t get a high number of (female) applicants,” VanLeeuwen said. “Even our auxiliary unit, we currently have three females.”

She noted that Woodstock Police would be losing at least four females over the next five years, plus a few more in the five-year period after that.

Oxford OPP has a slightly higher portion of female officers, representing one quarter of the detachment. Out of 108 total uniformed officers, 27 are women.

There are a number of factors that may deter women from applying – or wanting – to work in policing, female officers said.

“Even when I applied, I was married and I had a young child. There’s a lots of responsibilities there,” VanLeeuwen said. “It is hard to go away to college and leave your family at home, if you’re getting into this later in life. And really, police services usually don’t hire people right out of college or university, they want people with some life experience.”

Yu noted that in her recruitment she has noticed an overall lack of self-confidence.

“For females and males, any applicant, the unknown is scary,” she said. “It’s really, really important for us to attract, educate, mentor, and inspire female applicants to be aware of all the opportunities.”

And for every challenge that comes with policing, there is a reward, VanLeeuwen said.

“It’s a great career, a great job, lots of opportunity for change,” she said.

“If you’re the kind of person who likes change all the time, you get bored easily, then this is a good job for you, because you never know what you’re going to get.”

Yu also promoted the idea of “careers within a career,” noting that there is lots of room for specialization within policing.

There are also constant opportunities to affect positive change, VanLeeuwen said.

“It sounds cliché, but this job definitely rewards you that way. I actually feel like I make a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “You don’t always see it all the time, especially when you see people at their worst.”

VanLeeuwen recalled a gentleman who came back to tell her that the extra time she spent chatting with him helped to turn his day around when he had been planning to take his life that evening.

“It’s that stuff that makes all the difficult parts of the job bearable,” she said.