Citizen Today: women in leadership

Force of nature: Australia's top cop

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In 2001, Christine Nixon made history by becoming Australia’s first female police commissioner. Now retired from the force, she talks about the reality of life as top cop in the state of Victoria.

“There were only 130 women when I joined the police and 8,000 men,” she recalls. But the 1970s was hardly an environment that actively encouraged and enabled women to progress through the ranks.

Maternity leave and other measures to boost flexible working were yet to be made available and structural barriers, such as the height of eligible recruits, made things harder. “Equalities legislation was just coming into play and the new laws were important, but there were still a lot of barriers,” says Nixon.

“I think you have to get a sufficient volume of women into an organization like the police, and we were always aiming to get 40% of applicants to be women. Legislation set the right conditions, but it doesn’t remove all the barriers along the way, some of which are more visible than others.”

Such barriers included:

  • Physical obstructions to entry, such as an obstacle course test
  • Old-fashioned attitudes
  • Composition of interview panels for recruitment

“In NSW when I managed to change the system and make it more egalitarian and less focused on a small panel making choices, I noticed quite a change in the number of women who were able to get through,” she recalls.

In 2001, Nixon was appointed Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, a force huge in size and power, but one that failed to reflect the diversity of the communities it served. Attracting people from different ethnic minorities was a part of the solution, but recruiting more women formed a key part of the new approach.

“When I joined, I think they had about 16% of sworn officers as female. Many of them had been serving for quite some time, but they really hadn’t progressed through to the higher levels. I set a target of 25% to be female. The union opposed me, but in doing that, in some ways they gave me more publicity.”

“What we had to do with policing is convince women they could actually do it and be confident to do it well. This was easier when I was Chief Commissioner, as they see other women in senior positions.”

Now employed in a variety of roles across the public and private sectors, Nixon is a close observer of her former colleagues in uniform. Asked whether the changes she introduced have proved to be sustainable, she says that much depends on senior people having a strong focus on making sure the reforms do not go into reverse.

“Watching NSW from afar, the number of women getting into senior positions is in fact slipping back,” she admits.

Nixon is more encouraged by the fact that more women are serving for a longer time in uniform, particularly as longevity of service is a key factor to promotions.

The ability to persevere and her own self-confidence explain Nixon’s success. “Women don’t need to be afraid — they just need to get on, step forward and have systems and leaders that support them.”