As a Pakistani Muslim senior police leader I should not be a rarity

Blog post

As a Pakistani Muslim senior police leader I should not be a rarity


By Detective Chief Inspector Aneela Khalil-Khan, South Yorkshire Police

When I joined the police 20 years ago, I was used to being different, as a Pakistani Muslim woman, fresh out of university I was uncommon. In those early days, when I attended court, people would frequently think I was a barrister or a legal adviser rather than a police officer. Once I was approached in the Royal Courts of Justice and asked to represent a client. I told them that I’d love to advise on the matter, but they would probably do better speaking to an actual lawyer.  

Two decades on, some things have changed for the better. In 2023, 33.5 per cent of the police workforce in England and Wales is female, compared to 16.5 per cent in 2000.1 Moreover, in 2003 only 2.3 per cent of police officers were from a minority background, compared to 8.3 per cent today. Yet these are predominately concentrated in more junior ranks. In 2023 only 4.3 per cent of senior officers are from minority groups, compared with 2.8 per cent in 2007. Furthermore, only six per cent of female police officers are from a minority background, compared to 7.9 per cent of male officers. Although there has been progress, as a female senior officer from a Pakistani Muslim background, I am still the odd woman out.  

Over the years I have had many inspiring female leaders and peers who have advised and supported me. But very few were from a Black or minority background, and thus able to fully grasp the challenges and barriers I faced both professionally and personally in my chosen career.  

After gaining a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States, I began to explore why there were so few women of colour in the police in England and Wales, and whether the picture was different in the USA. I focused on the recruitment, retention, and progression of Black and ethnic minority females in law enforcement and how any identified barriers might be overcome. I visited and spoke to officers from police departments across the States, interviewing 17 Black and minority female officers and staff, across all ranks, who had eight to 35 years service. Additionally, 34 women participated in an online survey.  

On both sides of the Atlantic, policing is facing a crisis of public confidence and trust. This has been exacerbated by high-profile instances of police misconduct, such as the murder of George Floyd in 2020, which triggered international protests by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) movement, and before that the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, which first exposed institutional racism in the police. All of this has damaged community trust and confidence in police legitimacy. In both countries, those from ethnic minorities, especially those from a Black heritage feel the police unfairly target them, for example through stop and search, and do not have their best interests at heart.  

Police agencies need public support to do their roles effectively. One way this can be generated is by hiring and retaining more female officers and more officers from minority backgrounds, after all what you cannot see you cannot be! My research showed women join the police to make a positive difference and to give something back. They believe they can help create more representative forces by joining the police, being present in meetings and changing things from the inside, rather than standing on the sidelines criticising them. 

Yet they face a tough challenge. Even though an increasing number of women are joining, forces struggle to retain female officers. Many female officers face discrimination, harassment and institutional bias, which impact their work/life balance and promotion opportunities (Wilson, 2019).  

These barriers are even harder to overcome for women from an ethnic minority background: 62 per cent of the females surveyed and 88 per cent of those interviewed said they worked in a male orientated environment and suffered from misogyny and sexual harassment from colleagues and the public, which left them doubting their own abilities and feeling obliged to work harder than their male counterparts to be recognised. Moreover, being unable to learn from or seek support from a leader who has navigated a similar journey, left officers feeling that the job was not for people like them.14 Research conducted by Tyson and Charman, who interviewed former police officers across England and Wales, showed that women were not resigning because of the job itself, but rather because of the internal and organisational issues outlined above.  

The systems and structures of policing, especially in the US, make change challenging. While policing in the UK is by consent, the US has a more authoritarian approach. In contrast to England and Wales’s 43 forces, the US has 18,000+ police forces with varying practices, codes of conduct and resourcing levels. There are also different tiers at a Federal, State, County and Municipal level, leading to different laws, enforcements, and standards. The lack of central governance or oversight there should in theory leave individual departments free to recruit officers that represent the communities they serve – but this is not the case.  

Police departments are still dominated by male and white officers. In the UK, although the representation of female officers has increased significantly over the years, the number of officers from a Black or minority background has not. Within the US, although there is a good representation of Black officers, the national representation of females in law enforcement is as little as 12 per cent. In the UK, 31.3 per cent of chief officers are female, compared to 3 per cent in the US.  

The lack of proper maternity leave provision is one of the main reasons why there are so few female officers in the US. Likewise, there is little option to work flexible or part time hours, forcing many women to choose between their career or raising a family. More often than not women leave law enforcement after having a baby.  

In an attempt to encourage more female recruits, the US has launched a 30×30 initiative, which aims to ensure 30 per cent of new recruits are women by 2030, and to ensure police policies and cultures support female officers throughout their careers. The campaign is made up of a coalition of police forces, academics and experts and has so far signed up 300 law enforcement agencies. Its research shows increasing the number of women in law enforcement positively impacts public safety and community perception of police, for example, women use less force. 

My research shows one of the key aspects to supporting and improving the representation of women of colour in policing is by having bespoke female of colour mentorship. Such programmes would allow candidates to relate to someone who looks like them, or who has had similar experiences, leading to a more supportive environment. In 2023 as a Pakistani Muslim Senior leader I should not be a rarity. Perhaps initiatives such as this will bring more people like me into policing, normalising police officers who are women of colour and leading to fewer cases of mistaken identity.