Research Findings

Patriarchal webs: Understanding workplace inequity for lower-ranked Pakistani policewomen


March 17, 2022

I was sitting in an open-ended police van with half a dozen policewomen, “hanging out” with them as they awaited orders to begin crowd control in that part of town.

A policeman came up to the back of our open-ended van and told us that it had to be taken somewhere else; we had to get off. The women grumbled good-naturedly as they began gathering their things and climbed out.

One of them, Ruqqaiya, began adjusting her headscarf so that she could also use it to cover her lower face. She then pulled out a black gown from her bag and began putting that on top of her uniform.

The policeman returned and addressed her impatiently, telling her to hurry up. “Wait, let me put on my gown first,” Ruqqaiya protested in a small voice. He walked off irritated, muttering about policewomen and their issues.

I witnessed many moments of policewomen demonstrating efficient, professional conduct during my year-long, multi-city fieldwork on Pakistani policewomen in 2015-16. I also witnessed its absence.

For instance, many lower-ranked policewomen frequently violated their official dress code by veiling in ways that hid their uniform or rank. Many did not actively engage with their male colleagues; often missed official departmental events; and displayed an unwillingness to avail themselves of learning opportunities.

How would they develop professionally? How could they progress into senior ranks if they, like Ruqqaiya, only reinforced negative stereotypes about women’s suitability in this non-traditional profession?

Research on policewomen in different parts of the world focuses on how men’s numerical domination in the police, their occupation of senior management and leadership positions, and the association between the police organization and “manly” qualities, can create a hostile work environment for policewomen and keep them at the margins.

For instance, policewomen are frequently overlooked for career development opportunities because they are considered “out of place” and “less” than men. Their occupational role is often limited to support activities or gendered tasks, and they are regularly patronized and discriminated against.

In my recent article in Gender & Society, however, I focus on policewomen’s workplace behavior. This does not mean blaming women or holding them responsible for playing a role in their own marginalization. But it does, I argue, help us recognize and understand how other patriarchal social structures, like the family or community, can also contribute to workplace discrimination and inequity.

Pakistani policewomen make up only 1.46 percent of the police force in the country.  Many policewomen, most of them in the lower ranks, told me that working with a large number of men made the public associate them with immorality and promiscuity. These women’s families were stigmatized by association in a cultural context in which women’s reputation and moral character were linked to their families’ honor and reputation.

Policewomen in lower ranks are more vulnerable to reputational concerns.

For instance, a senior ranked policewoman’s rank-based authority and ability to mete out punishments make most junior male officers less likely to offend her. Similarly, people outside the organization–be they distant relatives or members of her community–would not want to disrespect her, given the potential usefulness of such a contact. In contrast, lower-ranked policewomen lack such rank-based protection and are therefore more vulnerable to others questioning their character.

I found that reputational concerns were also the most acute among women who came from or lived in areas with strong customary traditions. These were often small towns or urban neighborhoods with some gender segregation. Women’s employment was considered socially unacceptable in these locations, especially outside the profession of teaching, which is usually gender-segregated and considered “respectable.”

Younger lower-ranked policewomen faced even more pressure to engage in appropriate gendered conduct and mark themselves as moral, as a reputational loss could, among other things, damage their marriage prospects. They also experienced anxiety because apart from having little authority, they also lacked the confidence that came with job experience. Those who belonged to areas where gender segregation was the norm had limited exposure to non-family men and felt particularly uncomfortable working with them.  

Jabeen narrated that she felt nervous when she was around her male colleagues. She, therefore, refused their efforts to teach her the work:

“They would tell me to learn how to write in the roznamcha [daily diary], but I would say ‘No, Sir.’ I would be scared. To sit among gents. That’s why I didn’t learn. I didn’t have the confidence to sit among men. Alone. If there are all gents and there is only one lady, then one feels confused.”

Many policewomen also feared the possibility of being harassed, especially in such a male-dominated environment. They often, therefore, did their best to maintain spatial distance. Fehmida did not attend male-dominated evening functions at her police training institute:

“We stand out because we’re only four. Things would have been different if we were more.”

Many lower-ranked policewomen who feel anxious about working with such a large number of men, or are concerned with people questioning their morality and character because they do so, or both, therefore attempt to deal with these conundrums by engaging in coping strategies. These frequently take the form of disengaging from their male colleagues, veiling more than is officially mandated, and maintaining spatial distance.

Engaging in behavior that upholds their family’s reputation and prevents their community from stigmatization is important given the key role these institutions play in giving women status, identity, and security. Their behavior cannot be divorced from their need to invest in and maintain their familial and social ties.

But this comes at a professional cost.

Ruqqaiya was slower to leave the van because she wanted to veil in a particular way, but she was disparaged for not displaying efficiency and courage; highly valued traits in the police.

Jabeen’s refusal to engage with her male supervisor out of nervousness prevented her from learning additional skills.

Fehmida had to give many formal explanations for missing departmental events. Avoiding these also prevented her from networking, thus closing the door to useful information and potentially valuable contacts.

The expectations or pressures from other social domains–in which women are also embedded and feel they cannot ignore–explain their coping behavior. But such behavior can also have a negative impact on their professional development and career progression, and on effective policing.

Such coping behavior can also reinforce negative attitudes toward policewomen as a whole and discourage senior officers from expanding their role at work, making things more difficult for those policewomen who wanted more responsibility and do non-traditional tasks. These policewomen told me they had to work twice as hard as men to combat gender stereotypes and prove themselves.

This research, therefore, underlines the value of examining the social structures of which people are a part and exploring how these interact, even when studying a singular organization.

Recognizing how cultural values and other social structures (and their demands) can shape behavioral choices is necessary if the police organization wishes to end a cycle in which policewomen feel they must employ their own coping behavior to carry out their duties.

Read more

Sadaf Ahmad. “Coping with Conundrums: Lower Ranked Pakistani Policewomen and Gender Inequity at the Workplace” in Gender & Society 2022.

For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here.

image: author’s own image

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