From just two women in 1917 to almost 4000 – and counting – in 2017, a lot has changed in the 100 years that women have been at Victoria Police and the best is yet to come.
A handbag is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of being properly equipped to fight crime and serve the community.
Yet as Victoria’s top female cop remembered, she was issued with one after graduating from the Victoria Police Academy in 1985.
Where it is now though is anyone’s guess, as Deputy Commissioner Wendy Steendam’s 32-year career was built on ability, not accessories.
‘Agents’ Madge Connor and Elizabeth Beers laid the foundations for a new police force when they were sworn in at Victoria Police on 31 July, 1917. From day one they proved themselves invaluable to investigating dodgy doctors and working as ‘decoy ducks’. But while praise for their efforts flowed, progress was slow. Hundreds of women applied for vacancies but only 11 female officers were added to the ranks over the next 31 years. The following decades, however, proved the real turning point when women became detectives, completed the advanced driving course and joined the Mounted Branch, fingerprinting and the Air Wing.
The challenge for 2017 and beyond is achieving equal representation across the organisation.
Reflecting on the milestone, DC Steendam said every woman who served – or supported the frontline operations in the public service – had helped to improve the organisation and build on the progress of their predecessors.
“I think it’s important to thank those who’ve gone before us, the trailblazers who continued to push forward to make policing better for everyone,” DC Steendam said.
“For periods of time in my career I was the only female in an office – I would like to think that’s a rarity now but we’re still nowhere near where we need to be.”
Currently men outnumber women in the organisation more than three to one. Introducing part-time positions, flexible rostering and increased maternity and paternity leave options and support has helped, while the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission Review Response Team is stamping out sexual harassment and discrimination. Work is also underway to support employees to stay connected while on periods of extended leave to reduce the pressure of returning to work.
“Getting more women into the organisation and ensuring representation across all ranks is not about diminishing skills sets or lowering standards but levelling the playing field,” DC Steendam said.
“It’s about how you understand merit and what we value.
“The structural changes will not just benefit women but the whole organisation. Parental leave and flexible hours benefit men as well as women. And if we have greater diversity, we have great agility, more innovation and you get better outcomes.”
DC Steendam has already seen a lot of change in her time, and helped to drive it, and while she can’t predict the next 100 years, she knows there’s nowhere else she’d rather be.
“I love policing. I loved the day I joined and I still love it,” she said.
“When I signed up I said I wanted to make a difference. I was thinking at an individual level with victims and families and communities but now at a strategic level I know I’ve made a difference with key reforms on violence against women, crime, a plan for the modernisation of the organisation and technological improvements. I have also managed to maintain my career while raising a family. And if I’ve shown someone else what’s possible, then that’s a good thing.
“I get a lot of pride from seeing the capability of our graduates; you see the future in the faces of the recruits. It gives me great hope for the future of the organisation.
“Global issues are having an impact on the organisation; we have to be agile and adaptable as an organisation and as individuals to meet that challenge.
“The only thing that’s guaranteed in this job is the environment is ever changing and we need to be prepared for that.”
Editorial: Anthea Cannon
Reviewed 28 June 2021