BUIES CREEK -- Catherine Cowling’s mother was accepted into law school when she graduated from college in 1964. But Cowling’s mother would have been one of only two women in that year’s incoming class. Studying law in an environment overwhelmingly male intimidated her -- so much so that she decided not to attend law school.
Thirty-five years later, when Cowling graduated from Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, a majority of her classmates were women. And, today, the majority of students majoring in criminal justice are women. “We have made huge strides in the number of women” in criminal justice fields like law, said Cowling, director of Campbell’s criminal justice program who at one time was a domestic violence attorney for Cumberland County Legal Aid.
But, she added, women currently make up only 12 or 13 percent of the workforce in another criminal justice field, law enforcement. “There’s still this belief out there that it’s not a profession for women.”
Cowling hopes the annual Women in Criminal Justice event that Campbell’s Criminal Justice Club sponsored and held for the first time Friday will help change that perception. “We want to highlight career opportunities and challenges for women in the field of criminal justice and encourage and inspire women going into the field,” she said.
To do that, Women in Criminal Justice featured an hour-long panel discussion in Turner Auditorium where Cowling and two other women who work in criminal justice shared their background, talked about what it’s like to be a woman in their professions, answered questions, and offered advice to the several dozen students -- both male and female -- who attended the event.
Those panelists joining Cowling were Yolanda Hunter, who has been a law enforcement officer with the Raleigh Police Department for the past decade, and Jessica Bullock, a 2011 Campbell graduate who works with Cumberland County Probation and Parole.
Students asked numerous questions that prompted the panelists to talk about the training they continue to receive, the physical and written tests they have taken, the benefits of having backgrounds in the military or athletics (teaches discipline and dedication), the differences between working with adults and juveniles, how to break bad news to others (be compassionate), the worst experiences they’ve had on the job (dealing with a suicide and a suicide attempt), and how they have handled adverse situations.
About that adversity, a student asked if that included any discrimination they’ve faced as women in the field. Hunter said she hasn’t faced any issues with peers or supervisors. When responding to calls, she said, she has occasionally dealt with individuals who expected a male police officer to arrive and “who may feel women should be at home,” but “it has almost always been someone from an older generation,” she said. When that happens, she simply tells the civilians if they don’t want to talk to her, she’ll get an officer there whom they will talk to. “But it’s nothing that has deterred me,” she said.
The same for Bullock, who said she has encountered civilians as well as a few colleagues – usually of an older generation -- who have questioned her abilities as a woman. “The way I countered those experiences is to do 200 percent what I’m supposed to do instead of just 100 percent,” said Bullock, who worked with juvenile delinquents, including those at a maximum-security facility for juveniles with severe behavioral problems, before joining the Cumberland County Probation and Parole. “Even though I’ve had to go through those things, I’ve had supervisors recognize I’m doing the best I can and my worth to the department. . . .
“I give so much of my heart and soul to my job.”
The biggest challenge they face, they added, is the same that men face -- managing a highly-stressful job. Bullock shared a time when a juvenile delinquent tried to stab her. “That was a traumatic situation, but that happens quite frequently,” Bullock said. “If you’re not ready to deal with traumatic situations, it’s not going to be the best field for you. And you have to be willing to deal with what will be said to you, because it’s not always going to be positive.”
If you can deal with those things and if you want “to help those who can’t help themselves,” Hunter added, don’t talk yourself out of doing something because of perceptions and expectations other people may have for you or that you may even have about yourself.
Hunter said she knew a highly-capable woman who wanted to be a police officer but hesitated to pursue it because she weighed only about 100 pounds. Hunter told her: “There are so many women in the profession. It’s doable. Even if you’re 100 pounds, don’t let it deter you. It’s not about size. It’s about you and how you carry yourself, and it’s about trusting in your training.”
One of the students who attended the panel discussion was Natasha Afridi, a senior in marketing who is taking an Introduction to Criminology course this semester as an elective. Though she’s not necessarily pursuing a career in criminal justice, Afridi said she found the information the panelists shared applicable to her own career pursuits, such as their advice to avoid using slang in interviews and to watch what you post on social media because employers will look at those things.
Additionally, their experiences heightened an awareness of and an appreciation for professionals in criminal justice, particularly women, Afridi added.
That was what Cowling was hoping for -- and why she plans for Women in Criminal Justice to become an annual event held the second Friday each February. “Whether it’s in law, courts or corrections, there is room for any woman who wants to achieve success in the field of criminal justice,” she said. -- By Cherry Crayton, digital content coordinator