When I'm asked to give talks about policing, the topic most requested is female policing. As the first female promoted to the rank of commander in my organization, there is a genuine interest in my perspective as a female in our male-dominated profession. I've become accustomed to the request, so I acquiesce but then speak about something entirely different in defiance.
The defiance is not for its own sake. Rather, it is because I have spent my 20-year career trying to deflect the fact that I'm a female (not hide, just deflect). During my cadet years and in the academy, my goal was to perform at the same level as my male colleagues. That mindset followed me through my field training program and as a patrol officer on the street.
Police officers learn very quickly which officers they want at their flank when they are in the trenches, and that knowledge is not gained by knowing an officer's gender, affiliation, orientation, or [insert anything that makes us different here]. Instead, it is gained through a series of shared experiences where trust is slowly built as competencies are revealed.
As I made my ascension through the ranks in my department, I started to realize that each supervisory position took me back to the same mindset. I had earned the respect of my peers at the beginning of my career but now I would have to earn it as a sergeant, lieutenant, and so on. Being competent on the street and being competent as a manager require entirely different skill sets, and at each juncture, there is a moment where everyone is watching to see if you have what it takes.
Once again, this phenomenon is gender neutral and we impose the same expectations on any person who has assumed a supervisory role. I will concede that I may have been scrutinized a bit more closely as a result of my gender, but I never minded that. Most of us who are in this profession are called to it because it appeals to our love of a challenge. In fact, people are only worthy of being called to a higher position if they sincerely understand that they must earn it even after they are called to lead.
It wasn't until I became the first female to reach the rank of lieutenant and subsequently commander in my organization that gender became the focus. The media and the public were trying to shine a light on what I had spent so many years successfully deflecting and it was making me extremely uncomfortable. This didn't change until a young female officer told me that she never considered pursuing rank in our organization until she saw it exemplified.
Since her comment, I've embraced the responsibility that comes along with being the first only because it provides possibility to those who might not have considered such. Despite the emphasis on hope and faith, sometimes you can only believe in the things you see.
My goal is that we come to a place in time where there is no headline that spotlights the first of any person in the human race. Only when it ceases to become news will it mean that we have successfully embraced all people as potential leaders and we will focus less on differences and more on character and competence.
Commander Kristen Ziman of the Aurora (Ill.) Police Department is a board member of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE).