'It means an awful lot to people to see senior women within an organisation'

For the first time in Derbyshire Constabulary’s history, all three of the most senior ranking positions are occupied by women. To mark International Women’s Day, the force has released an interview with the trio.

Mar 8, 2021
By Tony Thompson
Deputy Chief Constable Kate Meynell, Chief Constable Rachel Swann and Assistant Chief Constable Michelle Shooter.

With almost 80 years of combined policing experience behind them, these three women, Chief Constable Rachel Swann, Deputy Chief Constable Kate Meynell and Assistant Chief Constable Michelle Shooter, are responsible for keeping the people of Derbyshire safe.

Ms Swann said: “We find ourselves in a unique position, with three women in the chief officer team. The fact that we have a chief who is female is something to really celebrate, but actually it’s also sad that it’s 2021 before that’s happened.

“For me, International Women’s Day is a way of highlighting inequalities that still exist based on gender, but also to celebrate some of the achievements that we’ve made. If we’re not careful we just look at the distance there is still to go, so I think it’s important to recognise the progress. We need to remember the positives as well.”

At the beginning of the year, Ms Swann appointed Kate Meynell from Nottinghamshire Police to be her deputy. On joining Derbyshire’s female-led team, Ms Meynell said: “I didn’t plan to get to deputy chief constable, but I’ve always taken each opportunity in front of me. I’ve been keen throughout to try and ensure I was competent and effective at each rank before I applied for promotion.”

“I see the benefit of having three women in the chief officer positions more around the complimentary nature of our skills. When you look at our experience and what we bring to the roles, I think that’s the most important thing.”

The third member of the team is Assistant Chief Constable Shooter, who has been with Derbyshire Constabulary since 1999 and has worked her way up through the ranks, in a number of departments across the force.

She said: “Although we are three women, we are all very different. We have different skills; different personalities and I think it is that blend that enhances the leadership. We shouldn’t put a label to things. It’s how you treat people and how authentic you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, it’s how you do things, how you want to deliver things, and make things better for people.”

At Derbyshire Constabulary, around 60 per cent of its workforce, and between 35-40 per cent of its police officers, are women.

Speaking about this on International Women’s Day, Ms Swann said: “Equality doesn’t exist everywhere within society, and gender is one of many factors in this. I specifically say gender rather than ‘for women’, as I recognise the impact of gender is felt by both men and women. IWD for me helps highlight some of those differences and some of the challenges. When you think about gender in terms of protected characteristics, it probably feels like it is a long established or recognised one. And whilst it is, there is still actually a huge way to go in terms of equality.”

The selection processes for deputy chief constable was very robust and Ms Meynell was selected as the best candidate. It is never about protected characteristics, Ms Swann is quite firm on this, and the importance of fair and transparent processes in selection procedures.

She said: “Within the chief officer team we have a male ACC and a male finance director. I spent a lot of time looking at the different skills that we all bring, and those are not second to gender. It’s the different skills and abilities that exist across the team that all work together and show how we best complement each other rather than anything based on gender.

“I do recognise that it means an awful lot to people to see senior women within an organisation, and it’s easy to forget the difference that it makes. You think to yourself, ‘I’m just being myself, doing my job,’ and you don’t realise that it does make a difference to people to see that people who maybe a little bit less traditional or less fitting perceived stereotypes, can make. That gives people confidence that there isn’t a glass ceiling, and that if we can do it so can they. I think that inspires all genders, however it’s maybe more of an impact on women, who as I said before aren’t represented equally in all levels or roles in the organisation.”

Ms Meynell added: “When I joined the police there was a definite lack of female role models. There were some, and they were quite supportive which really was helpful, and I hope that now, I can too be seen as a positive role model to colleagues.”

The role of women in the police has changed massively in recent years. Not long prior to some of our chief officers joining, there was a height restriction in place., said Derbyshire Constabulary.

They talked about how in the early years of their careers they were expected to deal with children at incidents rather than male colleagues they were working with. The chief and deputy chief constable were given uniforms including a handbag, skirt and a smaller truncheon than their male counterparts received.

Ms Shooter said: “As a woman you’d go double crewed, and you’d be taking the lead but the victim would often start talking to the man. You were learning your trade but because you were smaller, your male colleague would usually get the lead, not anything which they did but the reality of societal stereotypes which existed. Times have changed since then.

“When I joined I never thought I’d have the confidence to become a police officer. As a child, I’d be the shy, quiet, studious one, where actually I wish I’d been a bit more outspoken sooner, especially if I have a valid point to make to a conversation, meeting or debate.”

“Sometimes it’s about your own internal voice talking to yourself. You are there to do a job. When I was a police staff member, I just kept trying to push my boundaries. I became a Special, then joined the regulars, and I just seemed to take to policing and loved learning. I didn’t think I’d have the confidence or probably the ‘voice’ I needed to be a police officer, but it turns out that was more how I perceived a police officer to be.”

Throughout their careers, our leadership team have faced a number of testing situations. By challenging opinions and pushing boundaries, they have worked their way to the top and are leading initiatives to keep people that live, work and visit Derbyshire, safe, said the constabulary.

Ms Swann said: “Joining the police was a massive shock to me. I grew up in Cornwall and went to university, and that’s all quite protected. I hadn’t really been exposed to the wider things of life and actually the depravation that you see in some properties can be dreadful and upsetting, and in comparison, I’d had a very cocooned and protected upbringing. It was a real education and eye opener to me what the reality of life is to some families, and I’m actually always struck with how people can find themselves in different circumstances to you, simply by fate or lack of opportunity.

“I’m always really keen that we demonstrate respect to everyone, because people often don’t choose to end up in the situation that they are or have. It might be very different to how you live your life, what you face, but we shouldn’t judge them. We should absolutely treat people with respect and, where we can, with kindness. We do have a duty to fight crime and proactively bring people to justice, but also to protect vulnerable people from harm. That’s our job and we must do it without fear, favour or prejudice.”

This outlook on working is felt across the force. From dealing with vulnerable people in communities to arresting criminals, it is one of the force priorities to do the right thing and make a difference.

Officers and staff always aspire to work in this way and have great role models to be able to work like this.

Ms Shooter said: “I like to root for the underdog, where you’ve got a hard-working person, who perhaps isn’t the finished article, but just needs a chance. I know younger in my service, many senior officers at that time might have seen me as too quiet and perhaps overlooked me as I wasn’t the most vocal in the room. I try to ensure that people have equal share of the space, the time, an equal voice, let people express themselves and try to understand how they operate in terms of their personality style and what they can offer.”

Looking back on their careers, Ms Shooter and Ms Meynell have always tried to grab opportunities with both hands, and can now proudly reflect on how they got to where they are.

Ms Shooter said: “What I’m proud of is that I never thought I’d get to here. I literally thought I had a career for life when I became a police staff member in Criminal Justice all those years ago, so to actually get to where I have and look back on the hours, the work and the commitment I put in, that makes me quite proud really. I know that my family are proud of me, and that’s all that matters.

“My biggest piece of advice to my younger self if I knew then what I knew now, I’d have been my true self sooner. Just be true to yourself. Don’t worry about making mistakes and don’t worry about having an opinion because your opinion matters. It’s how you articulate it where sometimes it can’t be heard.”

Ms Meynell added: “I think when you join an organisation, part of you wants to fit in. You do have to fit in to a certain extent, but that doesn’t mean that you acquiesce to things. I would challenge things when it was said, I remember challenging an Inspector once about something, and once I’d challenged him he understood what I was saying and my perspective. You’ve just got to find your way, find your feet and try to understand why things happen.”

“This International Women’s Day, we’d like to recognise the successes that our chief, deputy, and assistant constables lead teams to achieve on a daily basis. The responsibility of leadership and keeping an entire county safe is by no means an easy task, but they show what can be achieved when you work together, support your staff and encourage both challenge and change in an organisation,” said Derbyshire Constabulary.

Ms Swann concluded: “Obviously becoming chief was a really proud thing for me, but I think more than it being a ‘Yes I’ve made it!’ thing, it’s more the enormity of it. I think I have a great responsibility to the people who work here, to provide the best service I can to the public, and to keep the people of Derbyshire as safe as I can. When I was told I’d got the job I didn’t go into it celebrating, it was more actually, almost immediately I felt the enormity of it and thought ‘I really need to do the best job I can and absolutely must do that.’”

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