There is no room for complacency in efforts to ensure more women obtain top roles in public life, a leading US diplomat has told a gathering of senior female police officers in Belfast.
But Barbara Stephenson, a former minister in the US Embassy in London and one-time consul general in Northern Ireland, insisted quotas were not the way to achieve greater workplace parity between the sexes.
Ms Stephenson, who is now dean of leadership and management at a training institute for US diplomats in Washington, was keynote speaker at the national Senior Women in Policing conference.
The two-day event, which has come to Northern Ireland for the first time, marks the last major engagement for outgoing PSNI deputy chief constable Judith Gillespie - the service’s highest ranking woman.
Ms Stephenson expressed concern that a “stalling” of the drive to achieve more top ranking females in the US diplomatic service was being mirrored in other organisations, such as the PSNI.
“There’s really no room for complacency because there is nothing inevitable or automatic about achieving parity for women,” she said.
“I know my own organisation is struggling with a stalling of women moving into the senior ranks and I notice we don’t have a senior police woman officer to move up right behind Judith.
“It is a struggle still for women in public service in that we do need to stay mindful about solving the problems that keep women from rising to the top of the ranks - it’s not happening automatically.”
But she expressed opposition to so-called positive discrimination tools, such as quotas, to engineer more women into top posts.
“Quotas come with a real price and I think we all know that because the people who come in under a quota then have to prove themselves over and over again,” she said.
“And I hate to actually burden people with quotas, I think really trying to look at - as an organisation what is it that is keeping women from coming and in and rising to the top and what can we do about that that makes it attractive for women to stay in - I think that’s a far more constructive approach.
“Targets are a different thing than quotas but quotas carry a burden.”
Mrs Gillespie expressed hope that other senior ranking women would follow her lead in the PSNI.
She noted that until 1994 women officers were unable to carry firearms in Northern Ireland - something she described as a “physical barrier” to achieving promotion.
“We have lots of very capable women and men coming through at superintending ranks and that means in the future, in the next few years, I am sure we will have another female chief officer,” she said.
“And of course there are currently competitions about to run for chief constable (to replace outgoing Matt Baggott) and deputy chief constable and there’s a possibility that we may have a female applicant from England, Wales or Scotland to either one of those posts, so I wouldn’t rule that out.”
Ms Stephenson’s posting in Northern Ireland coincided with the major peace process reform of policing that saw the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
Ten years on from her departure from Belfast, she said policing had been transformed.
“It’s good to have the long view because I do remember what it looked like,” she said.
“When I came there were sort of nightly battles on the streets of Belfast with a heavily armoured police force behind riot shields, often their faces covered, and there were armoured vehicles everywhere. And you know it’s pretty different now - you can run into police out there on bicycles and walking the beat and their faces are showing and I think the community policing push that the PSNI has made has really transformed this city - this feels like one of the safest most comfortable places you can visit in the western world.”