Life

What it’s like being a woman in the police service now vs 40 years ago

In partnership with
Met Police

A century after the Metropolitan Police officially introduced female police officers, we look at how life has moved forward for women in policing…

On 22 November 1918, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Cecil Macready, made an announcement that would change the face of policing forever.

As the nation’s men were still in Europe for the final months of the First World War, it was proposed that female police officers would be employed on what was called an “experimental basis” – with no real uniform and no powers of arrest.

A century after that watershed moment, there are now almost 8,000 women serving in the Met, including police constable Karen Giles, their longest-serving female officer, and her daughter, sergeant Jennifer Sharpling.

As the Met celebrates the centenary of female police officers patrolling London’s streets, the pair reflect on their life in policing, gender equality in the ranks, and why there’s never been a better time to be a woman in the Met…

The roles

Then:

In 1975, the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act meant that the separate Women’s Police Department was fully integrated into the Met. 

Women, including PC Giles, could now undertake shift work, although there were no other roles available to them and none of the personal-safety equipment that was afforded to men.

“Every woman was issued with a cape, a handbag and a white-topped hat, and that was it,” she recalls.

After 15 weeks of training, PC Giles was posted to the Plumstead and Woolwich Division, where all new recruits were required to live in the section house. 

This was a building that provided residential accommodation for unmarried police officers.

“We used to pay £1.50 a month for newspapers and laundry, while our wages were around £150 a month,” she explains (that’s around £1,000 in today’s money).

Now:

Forty years on, women are encouraged to apply for all roles in the Met. When sergeant Jennifer Sharpling joined in 2008, her dream was to become a response driver.

“I wanted to be a response driver more than anything,” she says. 

“I didn’t even have a driving licence at the time, but I worked really hard and passed my course.”

Still, the public doesn’t tire of seeing a female response driver. “Even now, people look surprised to see a woman driving with blue lights!”

These days, there is a diverse range of opportunities in the Met, and women are thriving in all sectors.

“From the neighbourhood policing team to response teams to organised crime specialists, if you want to be in the police, there’s something for you,” says Sharpling.

The culture

Then:

When PC Giles started policing in the Seventies, there was initial scepticism about women joining the force. 

“At first they were a bit concerned about letting girls out by themselves at night,” she says. 

“I think it was a novelty to see women out on patrol. There were some people who were very against it, but the world was a more sexist place back then.”

As time went by, policing evolved, reflecting the changing attitudes of society. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the camaraderie between officers. 

“It’s very much team-oriented in the police, and you look after each other,” she adds.

Now:

In her 11-year career, sergeant Sharpling says that while she has rarely experienced sexism, there have been times when people have made assumptions about the role of female police officers, and there’s one particular incident that sticks in her mind.

“I’ll never forget an older male PC once saying that I could deal with two children in police protection because I was a woman,” she recalls. 

“My response was, ‘I’m the only person in this room who doesn’t have kids!’”

Inspired by her upbringing, Sharpling believes it’s important to challenge people’s assumptions. 

“My mum brought me up with the belief that I could do anything,” she explains.

“So, if someone was sexist to me, I’d confront it. It’s just questioning people’s thinking.”

The rights

Then:

One of the major obstacles facing a female police officer in the Seventies was the lack of maternity rights. 

When PC Giles gave birth to her daughter in 1983, women could be sent home simply for announcing their pregnancy. 

“You got 14 weeks’ pay, and you wouldn’t return until you’d had the baby,” she says. “Although the expectation was that hopefully you wouldn’t come back at all.”

Meanwhile, career options were limited, with years going by before women received driving courses or became dog handlers. 

“It was said women were too weak to hold a motorbike up in traffic,” she recalls.

“And on a crime squad there was often only one female officer in case there were any women or children at the scene (something that was often seen as a ‘woman’s role’)”

Now:

Women currently make up 28.2% of constables in the capital’s police service and there are growing numbers of women across all ranks, including sergeant Sharpling, who was recently promoted. 

“Although it was my decision to do so, it was challenging going through the promotion process while heavily pregnant,” she explains.

“I did my interview three weeks after having my baby, but I passed and became a sergeant.”

These days, there are greater career pathways for working mothers, meaning that sergeant Sharpling will have more flexibility when she returns from maternity leave.

“I’ll be working 85% part-time, back on the response team”, she adds. 

The people you meet

Then:

PC Giles has policed some of the biggest events in British history, including the Royal Wedding in 1981 and the Brixton Riots, but it’s the individuals that stick in her memory.

“I once visited a woman on the Walworth Road who fed me honeyed pancakes until I said, ‘I really can’t eat any more!’” she laughs. 

“I also remember meeting an elderly couple who’d lived on the same street for 60 years,” she says. “It was an absolute pleasure to have that interaction.”

At the heart of it all, Giles believes that people’s aspirations are the same as they were in the Seventies – to keep their family warm, fed and safe. 

“It doesn’t matter who you talk to, or where they’ve come from – everybody wants the same things in life,” she says.

Now:

One standout moment for sergeant Sharpling came when she was called to attend to a vulnerable person who had no identification on her. 

“I’ll never forget meeting an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s who’d been found wandering around the Elephant & Castle,” she recalls.

“We spent the whole morning driving around going to old addresses she thought she lived in before we finally returned her home to her daughter.”

Nothing beats seeing community spirit in action, though.

“You’ll go to a burglary of an elderly person, and all the neighbours will come to check that she’s OK. As police officers you see the very worst in people, but you also see the best.”

This year, the Metropolitan Police celebrates 100 years of pioneers, role models and strong voices for women. Now there are almost 8,000 women currently serving in the Met police service, including response teams, neighbourhood police officers, firearms officers, cyber crime specialists and family liaison officers. Read the stories of just some of these revolutionary crime-fighters and find out how you too could help shape the next 100 years of the Metropolitan Police here.