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"You're going to make a hell of a corrections man someday": Work experiences of female wardens and superintendents

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Published onNov 16, 2023
"You're going to make a hell of a corrections man someday": Work experiences of female wardens and superintendents


This project describes the experiences of female wardens and superintendents in state correctional facilities in the United States. There has been little research on women in leadership positions in corrections; most research has focused on females working in non-traditional occupations or as corrections officers. This project describes how women negotiate gender in a masculine organizational culture where they are not always welcome. In-depth interviews were conducted with twenty-nine wardens and superintendents from thirteen states. The subjects discussed various issues women working in corrections face, from appearance to interacting with inmates and coworkers, being under near-constant scrutiny as women, and being held to high standards of professionalism. The women interviewed addressed the positive benefits of women working in corrections and their contributions to their institutions, the field of corrections, and working women.

Keywords: women, corrections, warden, superintendent, work, experiences, interviews

The number of females working in United States federal and state correctional systems has steadily increased. Inmate populations rapidly grew, impacting the need for more corrections officers. As such, the number of women working in corrections increased. Other reasons for hiring women for corrections concern legal matters and affirmative action. Correctional institutions now have to hire qualified females. Females are more qualified than males for some aspects of the job. Johnson (1997) contends women are better at deescalating tensions and communicating more effectively (p. 12). In some instances, it is quite clear that the introduction of women into the field has not been detrimental; but quite beneficial.

While corrections is no longer considered male-dominated, women are underrepresented in leadership positions. As a result, very little research has been done to document the experiences of women working in the highest levels of corrections.

Problems, Barriers, and Challenges

The research that has been done on women who work in non-traditional occupations, specifically female correctional workers, has shown that women encounter many challenges and barriers. These include; resistance and isolation of women officers by their male counterparts, sexual harassment, and assault (Johnson 1991). It is interesting to note that female correctional employees are subjected to the same forms of discrimination and harassment that female inmates report from male correctional employees. Some suggest that this behavior is motivated to discourage women's employment in male-dominated fields and "keep them in their place" (Rhode 1997, Zimmer 1986, Farley 1978, Kanter 1977). “Unfortunately, the masculine organizational culture has not changed as dramatically toward female employees as it has changed toward inmates…many women working in penal facilities are working in a hostile environment as a result of sometimes deliberate, often subtle, and mostly unintentional sexual harassment” (Jones [1991] 1997:52). Many of the women in Zimmer's groundbreaking study, on female correctional officers in male facilities, Women Guarding Men, claimed that the inmates were kinder than their male coworkers (1986).

When women's roles in corrections changed, it was clear that women were not welcome. A study by Joann Morton (1997) found that the overriding reason for hiring women was Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (p. 29). Hiring a person solely based on their sex as a result of litigation implies that that person is not qualified for the job. The law was not clearly defined in terms of the female employee's role, and some male employees and employers used the vagueness of the statutes to further discriminate against women, inadvertently maintaining a masculine organizational culture.

Females entering the field often face rejection, resentment, and antagonism. Male staff members have been very vocal about the role of women working in corrections, that is to say, many men do not think women should work in the field. With the introduction of female correctional officers inside the security perimeter of prisons, the most often voiced objection from males went like this, “They are increasing the danger for me because they are too small and weak to come to my aid…this also makes them more vulnerable to inmate assault and I’ll have to risk my neck to bail them out more often” (Johnson [1991] 1997:11). Other concerns centered on stereotypical gender characteristics. “Another objection to female officers voiced early on by the males was that they were too timid, afraid, emotional, or naïve to handle inmates effectively” (Johnson [1991] 1997:12). Males who exhibit these behaviors are chided and teased about their lack of masculinity. Many males report that when women enter a male-dominated field such as corrections, they receive special treatment, are exempt from doing dangerous work, are assigned non-contact posts, and they (men) have to change their behavior due to the presence of women (Williams 1989; Zimmer 1986; Kanter 1977). This ultimately creates more animosity between male and female correctional employees. Women who did exhibit masculine characteristics were subject to ridicule and thought to be lesbians or have hormone problems (Zimmer 1986). Male correctional employees discussed these attributes as if they only applied to females.

In a predominately male job, the organizational culture stresses the importance of machismo for successful job performance (Crouch 1980). Contrary to this statement, most women who hold onto traditional gender roles that support tough-guy masculinity report fewer problems at work than do women with liberated gender role attitudes (Zimmer 1986). Perhaps that is because women who actively engage in feminine behavior and do not try to act masculine do not threaten the organizational culture. Martin's research on policewomen concluded that "policewomen are forced to choose between two polar patterns of behavior, "defeminization" in which occupational role obligations are stressed, and "deprofessionalization" in which typically female sex-role norms are given priority” (Zimmer 1986:108, Martin 1980). The research indicates that organizational culture is an important aspect of work, especially if the organizational culture is male-dominated. Many feel that simply because women now have the right to work in all areas of corrections, they will be accepted into the organizational culture. Since the legal employment rights of women have been defined, discussions about whether or not women belong in corrections are moot. (Johnson [1991] 1997). What Johnson is not considering is the fact that some indifference and malice towards women is a result of the defined legal rights of women. Just because women have a legal right to be employed in all areas of corrections does not mean that they have been accepted into the organizational culture. Legally, women have the right to work in male correctional facilities, with higher salaries and more opportunities for promotion, but “the struggle to win the acceptance of their male co-workers and male inmates and to achieve the cooperation needed to give them an even chance of succeeding is just beginning” (Etheridge, Hale, and Hambrick [1991] 1997:66).

Social and Legal Issues

Given the historically masculine nature of corrections work, various legal efforts have been made to facilitate the entry of women into the field. However, "the removal of legal and formal barriers to employment has only been the first step. The larger task of removing the less tangible human barriers of the workplace remains” (Etheridge, Hale, and Hambrick [1991] 1997:66). Changes in the law do not translate into changes in attitudes. “Female guards, unlike women in other nontraditional jobs, have entered men’s prisons to work under a legally sanctioned system of near equality” (Zimmer 1986:4). This has created another set of problems. The laws tried to maintain a balance between women’s right to work in all-male facilities and inmate privacy. In its practical application, women often work in positions with little or no inmate contact. Prison personnel highly regard non-contact positions because they are safer than contact positions. When female correctional officers get these positions, the male correctional officer perceives it as special treatment.

The case law surrounding women’s right to work in male prisons is vague and subject to the interpretation of prison administrators, many of whom have not worked to implement the required changes. Administrators and supervisors who feel that women are not qualified to fulfill all the duties associated with being a correctional officer will often assign them to positions that limit their duties and training. Dana Britton suggests the ways in which officers are trained and assigned disproportionately benefit male officers working in men's institutions (1997). Some female guards accept this, while others who would like the opportunity for advancement, do not accept it. Advancement is not possible without proper training and experience. “The voluntary hiring [opposed to legally mandated hires] of women may help eliminate some of the overt hostility and discrimination that have occurred in the past. It will not however, ensure a fully integrated work force or the maximum use of women’s talents and productivity” (Morton [1991] 1997:112).

The importance of gender, gender socialization, occupational choice, and organizational culture are shaped by social and legal history. Women were limited and prohibited from a variety of job duties and professions (Reskin and Padavic 1994). The idea behind protective labor laws was to protect women and children, but they also protected men’s jobs. Protective labor laws also contributed to the social construction of work as a man’s world. “In putting many lines of work off limits to women, protective labor laws led to thereby contributed to the masculinization of the labor force” (Reskin and Padavic 1994:20). Protective labor laws also contributed to institutional discrimination.

Laws were not the only barriers to women working; there were also strong social values against women working. The Doctrine of Separate Spheres, a predominant ideology from the Victorian era, called for a separation of work and family life and made clear that work was the domain of men and women responsible for caring for the home and children. Social norms supported sex discrimination at home and in the workplace and were an acceptable reason to ban women from the workplace (Reskin and Padavic 1994:21-23). When women worked outside the home, the Doctrine of Separate Spheres also limited what kinds of work women could perform, much of it an extension of domestic work, such as sewing, laundry, cooking, serving, and cleaning.

Many women who needed or chose to work had difficulty finding employment. Often the employer's hiring practices produced inequality. “Some employers choose from a pool of applicants, some use formal intermediaries such as employment agencies, and still others rely on employee referrals. This third method—worker’s referrals—is most common because it is free and effective” (Reskin and Padavic 1994:23). However, recruiting new workers through workers' referrals tends to perpetuate inequality. First, people's social networks tend to include others of the same sex, ethnicity, and race. Second, sex stereotypes, fear of competition, and concern with coworkers’ and bosses’ reactions prevent workers from recommending someone of the “wrong” sex or race (Reskin and Padavic 1994). Many of the managers in Kanter’s study reported that they preferred to work with others like themselves, those who would fit in and follow the program, when a position was available, they would look for employees who had similar backgrounds and interests (1977).

Aside from gender and social differences, institutional policies and job requirements have also hindered women’s opportunities. Institutional discrimination often prevented women from being eligible for promotion. According to Morton ([1991] 1997), many correctional facilities require employees to have experience at medium and high-security institutions to be eligible for promotion to warden or superintend positions. Before the passing of Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, women were not allowed to work in medium and maximum-security correctional institutions and, therefore, were not eligible for promotion. Many times women did have experience working in women’s facilities; but women’s facilities were not specifically designated as minimum, medium, or maximum security. When women were allowed to work in male medium and maximum-security facilities, they began to rise in the ranks. Morton also reports that medium and maximum security facilities also pay more, correctional officers have more respect, and the number of jobs available in these facilities is greater than in minimum security facilities (Morton [1991] 1997). Many women cite economic reasons for their willingness to work in male-dominated fields, despite the obstacles they must overcome to work in those fields. To understand the experiences of female wardens and superintendents, it is important to consider women who work in all facets of corrections to understand the structural, individual, and gendered factors (Zimmer 1986).

The organizational culture of the prison is a structured context for women to exhibit gendered behavior and impression management strategies. Due to the many challenges faced by women who work in prisons, impression management provides strategies women can use to negotiate their daily routines.

Research Design

This project aims to explore the careers of women who hold leadership positions within the field of corrections. Specifically, this paper seeks to document their experiences working in correctional institutions. Participants were asked about their day-to-day experiences, how they manage relationships with coworkers and inmates, stereotypes about women who work in corrections, and how they manage the job's demands.

This project utilized semi-structured interviews. Participants were asked to answer open-ended questions through in-person interviews, telephone interviews, or electronic mail correspondence. In-person interviews allowed the researcher to establish rapport with the subject and gain deeper insight and understanding into the research topic. Telephone interviews allowed the researcher to access a wide geographical area of persons, who would like to participate, but cannot participate in in-person interviews and would prefer not to participate via email. An email interview has the advantage that it appears identical to all respondents. It is also easy for respondents to complete simply by entering text and clicking a send button when done (Mann and Stewart, 2000). The researcher will be able to follow up the participant's responses via e-mail.

Gaining Access to Study Participants

Upon receiving approval from the university institutional review board and permission from multiple state departments of corrections, letters of invitation were sent to potential interview subjects. The names and addresses of female wardens/superintendents were compiled from the American Correctional Association’s 2001 Directory of Adult and Juvenile Correctional Departments, Institutions, Agencies, and Probation and Parole Authorities. The sample was limited to wardens and superintendents of state adult institutions. Assistant and Associate wardens and superintendents were also included. Federal institutions, contract, juvenile, and community treatment facilities were excluded. Two hundred sixty-five letters were mailed to wardens or superintendents explaining the research and seeking participation. Twenty-nine interviews were conducted. The letter described the three methods planned for this study: in-depth, telephone, and email interviews. In-depth interviews were limited to a local geographic area due to the time and expense required. Using multiple methods allows the researcher to gain access to a larger sample.

Description of Participants

A total of twenty-nine interviews of wardens and superintendents were conducted for this research project. There were 17 face-to-face, five telephone, and seven email interviews. For 16 of the face-to-face interviews, the researcher traveled to the facility when possible. Another was held during the attendance of a conference for women working in corrections. The average length of the face-to-face interviews was one and one-half hours, the shortest was an hour, and the longest was three and one-half hours. The telephone interviews were scheduled in advance, and the researcher called each participant at a specified time. The telephone interviews lasted from an hour to an hour and a half. The email interviews were completed at the participant's discretion and often submitted in segments. Most email interviews were 4 to 12 pages in length. Data Collection took place over five months. Due to multiple methods, the participants came from 13 states.

All of the participants were Caucasian except for one who was African American. Women of all ages and races are underrepresented in leadership positions in corrections, according to the American Correctional Association’s 2001 Directory of Institutions, only 75 of the 265 female wardens in the United States belong to racial and ethnic minority groups. Although women's entry into leadership positions in corrections is increasing, it is increasing slowly. Their ages range from 33 to 62, the majority of respondents, 24 out of 29, were in their forties and fifties, with four in their thirties and one in her sixties.

Seven of the wardens in this study began their careers as caseworkers, five started as secretaries, seven others began as corrections officers, four started as probation and parole officers, another four started in other areas of corrections or criminal justice, and one began in the mental health field. They have worked in corrections for as little as five years up to 35, with the average time in corrections being 20 years.

Twenty-one of the wardens who participated in this research worked at male facilities, five at female facilities, and three at coed facilities. Two were work release facilities, three were minimum security, seven were medium security, six were maximum security, and 11 were multi-level facilities. The minimum number of inmates was 36, the maximum number was 1,968, and the average number was 924. In terms of staff, the smallest facility had 10 staff members, while the facility with the most staff members had 700, the average number of staff members was 334. Those numbers are more clearly represented in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1: Institutional Profile

Work Release


































The Interview Guide

While the interview guide focused on several aspects of women working in corrections as wardens and superintendents, the questions addressed in this research center on work experiences and impression management strategies. The work experiences portion of the interview guide will address their experiences working in a non-traditional or male-dominated occupation. How do their coworkers act towards them? What barriers and challenges have they faced in training, on their posts, or in the community? Have they been victims of discrimination or harassment? The last section of the interview guide addressed specific impression management strategies and sought to determine whether or not they use them in their daily activities. For example, do they pay more attention to their appearance than if they were working in a different environment? How do they deal with conflict? How do they interact with inmates and coworkers? Do they maintain a professional distance?

Table 2. Average Number of Inmates and Staff per Institution

Work Release





Average Number of Inmates






Average Number of Staff






These questions seek to gain a deeper understanding of the experiences of female wardens and superintendents. They are open-ended so that the respondent may elaborate and provide detailed answers. The researcher contacted the respondents to follow up on certain responses, further providing insight and understanding.

All participants were given informed consent. "Informed consent involves giving participants comprehensive and correct information about a research study, and ensuring that they understand fully what participation would entail" (Mann and Stewart, 2000, p.48).

Data Analysis

In analyzing the data gathered from the interviews, this study employed a coding strategy similar to that outlined by Strauss and Corbin (1990). They suggest that a three-step coding system facilitates narrowing or reducing data. First, open coding refers to "breaking down, examining, comparing, conceptualizing and categorizing data" (Strauss and Corbin, 1990, p. 61). This involves looking for differences, similarities, trends, and patterns among and between the responses. Second, axial coding involves "Putting the data back together in new ways after open coding, by making connections between categories. This is done by utilizing a coding paradigm involving conditions, context, action/interactional strategies and consequences" (Strauss and Corbin, 1990, p. 96). In this step, the data is organized into meaningful categories and subcategories. Finally, selective coding occurs when "the process of selecting the core category, systematically relating it to other categories, validating those relationships and filling in categories that need refinement and development" (Strauss and Corbin, 1990, p. 116). This step involves establishing a relationship between the core category and the subcategories. By employing this strategy, I can discover and describe common themes from the data.

Analysis: Respondents’ Strategies for Working in a Man’s World

This section identifies strategies used by female prison wardens to negotiate reality in their daily work routines. In describing the day-to-day interactions of women who work in a nontraditional occupation, this section seeks to answer four related questions. First, to what extent do they perceive their jobs as masculine and how do they deal with issues of working in a male-dominated occupation? Second, to what extent do they feel they are accepted into the masculine organizational culture? Third, how do the respondents in this study deal with stereotypes and harassment? Fourth, how do they manage interactions with coworkers and inmates and how do they maintain professional relationships?

As stated in previous sections, women have only been working in all areas of corrections during the last 30 years. Prior to that time, women only worked in female and juvenile institutions. Social, legal, and political changes facilitated women's entry into the field of corrections. Women are increasingly entering the field of corrections and assuming leadership positions. Despite the increased entry of women into the labor force and the field of corrections, occupational segregation still exists and it is important to document women's experiences as they enter into traditionally male-dominated occupations and professions.

Etheridge, Hale, and Hambrick ([1991] 1997) outline several methods women use to negotiate reality in a male-dominated prison setting. Many of these strategies correspond closely with Erving Goffman’s concept of impression management, which focuses on how individuals alter their speech, appearance, and behavior to convey certain images to others. They discuss such concepts as how to interact with inmates, dress, maintain a professional distance from inmates, deal with conflict, and build relationships with male and female coworkers.

The following sections focus on the conclusions from the data compiled from personal, telephone, and email interviews. The analysis highlights several important factors: stereotypes and harassment, professional interaction, acceptance into the organizational culture, success in a male-dominated field, impressions given, and managing emotions. These conclusions will be supported with direct quotes from the research participants.

"I Did Not Know What I Was Getting Into". Issues Women Encounter When Working in a Male-Dominated Field.

In recent years females have been increasingly entering historically male-dominated fields, many with great success, but none without problems. Many women have experienced discrimination and sexual harassment. Many of the women in this study felt prepared to enter a masculine organizational culture, for others, it was a process. Those who felt prepared did so for various reasons, such as having experienced being a woman in a male-dominated field or a background in the military. Most stated they were not prepared. Women who enter nontraditional occupations enter into an organizational culture unlike any other. One woman felt that college did not prepare her, but her previous experience working in a nontraditional occupation did:

In my mind I didn't think so. But when I got started I realized there was nothing I learned in college that prepared me... book-wise. What I learned in college was how to write and how to think, that's what this job is really about, a lot of writing, that's one of my skills. When I worked in a factory I was only the fifth woman ever hired so I had experience with that.

One stated her previous experience working for the state did not prepare her:

I had done clerical work for the state for 7 years. I had no idea what I was getting into; but law enforcement always interested me.

One woman thought her military background would help; but found corrections to be very different:

Because of my military background I am a no nonsense person. I was raised to respect authority. I do not appreciate game playing. From a woman's point of view that means nothing. In my state women do not deal with security or operations, those are male dominated positions. It is clear and apparent that those positions go to white males. Females and blacks get positions in programs or women's prisons, work release or juveniles. There is a good old boy system here, I am sure of it.

One woman did not have any problems entering the field of corrections and felt prepared:

I don't ever remember feeling uncomfortable with the job or questioning whether it was okay for me to be in this business. Whether thinking I could be afraid to work in that field, no. I've never handled a weapon before but haven't had any problem qualifying. I don't have that kind of background I didn't grow up with guns or with a father who hunts or anything like that.

One woman recognized that she entered a male-dominated field, while another did not:

I had to find a way to be accepted, a way of integrating myself into an organizational culture that didn't want me.

At the time I did not know corrections’ was a non-traditional occupation.

Another respondent recognized the amount of re-socialization that occurs in the field of corrections and stated the importance of having a strong sense of self:

You're never prepared to work in this occupation. This occupation changes you and prepares you in a way that only by being here do you become prepared. You don't turn it off when you go home because it is a degree of change that goes with you, it is a part of the growing you do in any career; but you have to be stronger than the job, recognize it and in some ways you have to fight to preserve yourself you have to have your own identity and you have to be secure in yourself.

Resentment by coworkers is common among female leaders in male-dominated fields. Interestingly, the women in this study indicated that both male and female coworkers showed resentment towards them for a variety of reasons, they did not like having a female supervisor, they had been in the field longer, or they thought the female was promoted based on sex. Some persons acted on their feelings of resentment, as stated by the following respondents:

Yes, and they quit.

Yes, at another facility my car got egged. Many people were furious because they had been there longer.

Another participant indicated that both men and women resent her success:

Yes a lot of men were resentful. They retired because they couldn't accept a female assistant superintendent. Females are also very resentful of a female in my position. I deal with that a lot. They have resented the fact that I can do my job. I didn't flirt, I didn't sleep with anyone and I didn't compromise my integrity to get where I am.

One thought the resentment was based on the assumption that she was promoted quickly because she was a woman:

Not to my face. I had a couple of men that I came up [the ranks] with say things like I finally made it too. I get indirect reports of people who didn't make it say things like I was as good as she was...comments like that.

The women in this study did not feel prepared to work in corrections for a variety of reasons, and the feeling of being unprepared was exacerbated by the resentment they encountered upon entry into the field, particularly when they began to be promoted. The next section addresses their perceived acceptance of the masculine organizational culture.

“You're Going to Make One Hell of a Corrections Man Someday": Women in the Masculine Organizational Culture.

Many of the women in this study indicated that although they have achieved high success in a masculine occupation, they are not "one of the boys." Because the field of corrections is dominated largely by a masculine culture, women are not welcome, and they are aware of it. Males have been very vocal about their concerns about working with women. Some concerns centered on stereotypical gender characteristics such as emotional factors, women are timid and naïve, and women cannot handle inmates. These concerns ultimately create more animosity between male and female correctional employees.

Most of the women in this study contend that they are not one of the boys, others claimed whether or not they were one of the boys was situational, some tried to be one of the boys, and some say they are one of the boys and still feminine. One respondent indicated that she is not one of the boys and that women working in corrections cannot be one of the boys:

I have not become one of the boys, the way I look and my stature, no. I think some people who look less feminine appear to be one of the boys; but you’ll never become one of the boys. There is a good old boy system and women just don’t get in.

Many contended that they maintained their femininity:

I have maintained my femininity. I am not one of the boys. I have my own individual identity.

I am not one of the boys. I feel that if I were I would have been promoted sooner and given more favorable assignments.

I can’t be one of the boys. I can only be myself with the understanding of my strengths and limitations. I am not exactly sure what femininity means anymore. I am professional in appearance and mannerisms.

I am totally feminine. There is nothing sadder than one, who tries to become one of the boys, don’t even try it. But you can't be a flit or twit either.

Others claimed that their acceptance as one of the boys was situational or due to their position as warden, but they still indicated differences between themselves and their male coworkers:

It depends on the situation. In an emergency I am one of the boys other than that I am who I am.

Both [one of the boys and feminine], I adapt to the situation at hand.

You are one of the boys. No not guy-guys; but you do have that camaraderie; it is just the nature of the role itself.

I am always one of the boys; but different, half and half.

The following respondents tried to become one of the boys by changing their appearance and behaviors:

I tried hard to maintain my femininity. At one point I changed my language. I talked like them to fit in and gain acceptance. It didn’t last. I wear skirts. I am just not one of the guys.

I tried to be one of the boys in terms of changing my thoughts. It did not work. I let myself go. I quit wearing make-up and fixing my hair. I couldn’t let myself become one of the boys. I do cuss a lot though.

Two other participants stated they did not change to gain acceptance:

I don’t think I would say I was one of the boys. I haven’t felt the need to act differently with them or away from them or finding an interest in something that they were interested in that I really didn’t share an interest in. I can’t think about carrying on a different persona depending on the group. I have never found that necessary. I never felt like I had to act a certain way.

Yes, I have maintained femininity because I like who I am. I can still mix with the boys; but I have no desire to spit tobacco, scratch, lower my voice or curse. By the same token I do not appear to be a withering flower who needs a man to protect her while walking the inmate yard.

Some respondents stated that they were one of the boys and feminine at the same time:

I can maintain my femininity and be one of the boys. I am the only female firearms instructor and I can shoot just as well as the men in the department. The program supervisor is very supportive. I joke around with the guys a lot. I tell them if I break a nail I’m done, I’ve got to fix it, or if it is hot and my make-up runs or if it is muddy I don’t want to get my clothes muddy.

Most participants did not feel that they had become one of the boys, while others stated their acceptance was situational, perhaps due to their position. Even though some reported being one of the boys,, they acknowledged differences between themselves and the men they worked with. The next section discusses how the women in this study have succeeded in a male-dominated field.

"You Have Watched Too Many James Cagney Movies": Dealing with stereotypes of women in corrections.

Many women in this study indicated that cultural stereotypes about women in leadership positions pose a significant challenge. Those stereotypes are influenced by the media, which portrays the female corrections employee as a brutish, man-hating, sadistic lesbian and the prison environment as a violent, unforgiving place. For the respondents in this study dealing with stereotypes goes with the territory of working in a non-traditional occupation.

One respondent stated that although stereotypes were not a problem for her, she did see them: regarding women's motives for working in corrections:

I can't really think of any in my career. I have seen so many female staff get involved in that looking for a boyfriend or husband. I made it clear that I was not that when I started. There were rumors about female wardens at that time that they slept their way to the top or partied with the boys; but I don't hear that anymore.

Another had to deal with several overt stereotypes surrounding her position:

Due to my young age and gender I received comments by other women like..."Who did you know" and "I thought all wardens had to be much older."  As far as being a Lesbian...well in rural communities alone if you're not married by the time you’re 30 or even younger with a couple of puppies something must be wrong with you.  I have to confess though I've had some fun with people regarding my sexuality.  As far as dealing well, I work hard and I address issues as they come up but I try not to worry about what other people think.

Other participants claimed that people would rather believe the worst about women working in corrections and perpetuate the stereotypes:

Many blatant ones [stereotypes], a lot goes on in corrections. When I was a corrections officer I promoted to caseworker then chief of security quite a few people thought I knew someone politically. I know it's not true, with me anyway. I applied for the job and got it.

I was accused of sleeping my way to the top. I have also been accused of being a lesbian because of my short hair. I get my haircuts at the barbershop, just like the inmates.

At one complex, when I started as warden, at the facility across the street they showed Wanda the Wicked Warden to the inmates. Someone thought it would be funny. The media portrayal is interesting and unflattering, degrading and personally objectionable. That was the worst. There is also the expectation that a woman running a male facility is taking some sort of perverse pleasure of being in charge. I like being in charge and running things. I like being in a position to influence outcomes. But messing with people is not what I like to do.

Oh sure, I remember being told there are only two types of women who work in corrections, victims or bitches and I needed to make a decision which one I was going to be. I chose neither. Women play a very important role in corrections and that is because the men that were dealing with inside have never had a positive female role model. Their mothers have been victims of one type or another or women who have done inappropriate things throughout their lives. These men see a woman as someone you need to victimize in order to survive or someone who has no values. Women who work in corrections owe it to themselves and the men that we work with to prove to them that women have value, women can know things and do things and were here for more than their enjoyment. You can't lose sight of that, you can't become the stereotypical, quintessential bitch or your just what it is they've always been fight against. Victim is the other side of that. You have to maintain femininity and strength, you can't become one of the guys, and you also don't acquiesce.

The common responses for women as wardens focused on such stereotypes as appearance, the prison environment, and the assumption that if they are a warden, it must be at a female facility. One warden stated that when she tells people what she does, they are shocked:

They ask, how can you stand to go to work there? People have a bizarre perception about what goes on in a prison.

Two respondents have to deal with the assumption that it is a women's facility:

They assume that it is a women's facility and are even more surprised when I tell them it is a male facility. They are also surprised that I have been an administrator for 16 years.

They ask it if is a women's prison, when they find out it isn't there were many different responses. The most typical was don't you find it frightening or how do you do your job without feeling intimidated or threatened? Women say, "You go girl". do men feel about being supervised by a woman...some don't like it and others don't care [about it]. Prisoners, I have never had any problems with prisoners. They like things neat and orderly. I can't remember any prisoners having any real issues with me being a woman; but staff definitely did.

Another stated that most of the stereotypes she encounters come from women:

I feel sometimes it is harder for me to convince other women, they are surprised when I tell them what I do, they react more strongly than men. If anyone has challenged me it's other women.

Other stereotypes center around what a warden should look like and how a warden should act:

They say you don't look like a warden. I think what is a warden supposed to look like. You don't line up 10 people and say pick out the murderer.

They say, "You don't look like a warden". I say, "You have watched too many James Cagney movies". They also say that I seem too nice.

One respondent indicated that she dispels stereotypes when she encounters them:

I don't accept them [stereotypes]. I have had several conversations were remarks were inappropriate or pranks of jokes, whatever it is I am a person who hits it head on. If it is inappropriate they need to know, they not going to read your mind. I am not going to accept it and move on. People are entitled to their opinions; but they need to be pulled into today's times and realize that they are going to have a woman as a boss.

Oftentimes the stereotypical beliefs about women working in corrections cultivate discrimination and harassment. The women in this study deal with harassment in several ways; confront it, do not define the behavior as harassment or discrimination, accept it as part of the job, or ignore it. Most respondents tolerate harassment, however, one resigned, and another filed a lawsuit. The following woman's male coworker reported harassment on her behalf:

At one time an incident happened where a person that outranked me was seen as sexual harassment. I was too young and naïve to recognize it. However, a male coworker did and reported it. He pulled me aside and said look...that opened my eyes. It happened another time and I didn't realize it until a day later. It was a comment and I made a comment back without realizing it and that probably shut the person down, the response was appropriate to get the person not to do it again.

The following respondents intentionally ignore harassment for a variety of reasons:

I ignore harassment as much as possible; but many times I address it with the person causing the problem right away and they stop. I can intimidate.

In the early years I put up with a lot of discrimination and harassment. I always felt like I had to. If you complained you'd never get anywhere. I tolerated it. Things seemed to get better; but now we're back to discrimination.

Yes, there was an incident of sexual harassment with my supervisor. I held to my values and decided my respect was worth more than my body!

I perceived harassment at one time; but I continued to work with the person and things changed. I let it go.

Sexual harassment by my supervisor before you could do anything about it. I put up with it and tried to avoid being alone with him.

Yes, but I never filed a grievance. I just tell the person that I don't like that [behavior].

One respondent successfully dealt with sexual harassment in the past and is currently dealing with gender and racial discrimination:

Yes, two times and it was very stressful. Once, the person was higher up. I just said no and that his behavior was bordering on sexual harassment. I am dealing with it now also. I get stuck working long hours and covering for the fellas. If they want to play golf they change the schedule. I am treated with disdain. The warden has a reputation for that. Three black women have already left.

One respondent indicated that she realizes harassment and discrimination go with the territory, but she still confronted it:

I had people who thought they should have gotten this job because I had not been in an institution. As a result, remarks and comments were made. People questioned my promotion and how I got the job. I know it's hard work and 20 years with the department. The department has a website where employees can post messages, people used that to insinuate that I did not get the job based on skill, education or experience; but something else. I took care of that. That just goes along with the job, people are going to talk.

One respondent felt that leaving her job was her only option for dealing with harassment and discrimination.

Yes. I left that job and looked for another one. I was young and at that time the laws we have today were not in effect.

Another reported the harassment and, after reporting, decided to leave for another job:

I reported it and the response was, "he's got bigger friends than you'll ever have so deal with it”. I did not stay and take it, I moved on. If I had overreacted I would have become a woman who was trying to get ahead because I was a woman and not because of my qualifications. I didn't want the negative attention.

Two respondents stated that confronting harassment and discrimination was the only option:

Not personally, I've seen it... I have a belief that you have to deal with those things, face it and deal with it head on. Be a victim or don't take it. I'm not going to take it. Women can become professional victims.

It is not something I accept is any shape or form. As an administrator you have to be very proactive and very cognizant and consequently make people aware and report and feel good about reporting. To deal with it and to take action is not the easiest thing to do; but it is not something to shove under the carpet, it's not going away, it never does.

Another filed a lawsuit:

Minor harassment, I simply talk with the individual and as professionally as I can let them know my position. I really have not experience sexual harassment; I have only dealt with gender discrimination. I filed a lawsuit and it is pending.

One respondent indicated that harassment and discrimination are part of the initiation into the field of corrections:

It's definitely there although it is better. I have been around so long I don't get bitten anymore. Corrections' is like a family and it takes a long time to become part of the family, for men and women.

Many of the participants in this study developed other strategies for dealing with harassment and discrimination due to the negative attention associated with filing grievances or lawsuits. The following comments were made about the repercussions of filing grievances or lawsuits:

At lower levels yes; but at this level, no, at this level it is a career killer.

There is retaliation.

I was never part of it [because] it is a career slower.

The participants in this study developed various methods for dealing with stereotypes, harassment, and discrimination. Although, for the most part, their strategies were individualistic, with one exception, they did not address the issues on an institutional level, but rather on a personal level, therefore placing responsibility for addressing stereotypes, discrimination, and harassment on an individual level and not on an organizational level. Only one respondent indicated that her role as an administrator was to eradicate stereotypes, harassment, and discrimination.

“Keep it Professional”: Managing Relationships with Inmates and Coworkers

For women working in non-traditional occupations, the basis for managing interaction is to be consistent, firm, honest, respectful, and professional. It is also important to establish and maintain boundaries for oneself, staff, and inmates. "If one consults the literature on women in management, much of it could be translated into a manual on how women can fit in with management and the organization cultural assimilation that formerly acknowledges equality but in practice denies diversity of gender" (Gherardi 1994:595). Females learn how their male and female coworkers perceive them and what is expected of them. Women are more likely than men to have to adjust their behavior to "fit in"(Pogrebin, 1997). Personal traits and personal relationships that foster opportunities for promotion in female-dominated fields diminish opportunities for women who work in male-dominated fields. For women, establishing and maintaining "professional work relationships" are required for success, there is no room for personal relationships. Personal relationships or friendships at work can lead to speculation, rumors, and insubordination. For men, having personal relationships or friendships can lead to opportunity and promotion (Kanter, 1977).

The women in this study commented on establishing professional interactions with inmates and coworkers. One respondent professed the value of consistency:

With offenders, from the beginning I’ll do my job. I’ll do what I can for them; but I won’t cross the line with them and they better not even attempt to cross the line with me. I am structured and rigid when it comes to following the rules with offenders. That’s the way you have to be. But at the same time I can be caring; I can do that and still maintain my professionalism. I’ve never had an incident with an offender. They know what to approach me with and what not to approach me with. Consistency is very important. I have to come in and be the same person every day.

Another discussed the importance of treating prisoners with respect and earning respect of prisoners and staff:

Prisoners are respectful because that is the way we treat them. The people who work for me respect me. I have earned respect and that is not an easy task. It is not just because of my position; but because I have shown that I can do it. It was a battle, being on my own and I had to learn. I wasn't afraid to make a decision.

One other stated that fairness is essential in dealing with inmates and staff:

I believe in treating people respectfully whether they are inmates or staff. My philosophy is staff is not always right and inmates are not always wrong. Also when inmates are no longer inmates they are citizens just like everyone else. People come to prison for a lot of reasons and I have seen a tremendous amount of talent behind the bars. I try to be fair in my dealings with staff. If I can give them the benefit of the doubt I will; but if I have to make a hard decision, I explain why and I am very straightforward with them. I believe fairness is essential.

Women working in corrections must also engage in strategies to sustain a professional image and personal distance from inmates and staff. The most common strategies are to avoid discussing one's personal matters in the workplace and establishing and maintaining boundaries. Some female wardens set different boundaries for inmates and different boundaries for staff, as stated by the following respondents:

I don’t know how to answer that question. It is going to sound really mean but there are inmates and there are people. I realize they’re all human; but there are things I would do with a staff member that I would never do with an inmate. I am friendly with them. I am interested in what’s happening with them and what we can do to keep them out of this vicious cycle that they are in, but the line is there and it is easy for me not to cross it.

Personal life is personal. I don't interact with staff on a personal level and I don't have personal relationships with staff. It is the same with offenders; but a more dramatic line. You don't put yourself on a personal level with offenders at all.

Another alluded to the problems females can have when dealing with male inmates:

I am very firm with inmates. Women need to be. I have seen too many females taken advantage of by male inmates for being friendly. You have to keep your distance, establish barriers and be consistent.

One respondent discussed her approach to offenders and her responsibility to establish boundaries:

By your approach to them, you approach them with respect, letting them know that you're in charge and where the boundaries are. It is inherent on me to set the limits because they [offenders] don't have any.

Two respondents indicated that they treat inmates and staff the same:

I always maintain a professional manner with inmates and staff it's my job. It does no service to anyone to act anything less, i.e. a friend.

You can be friendly and still business-like. Some people say that you can't do both. I visit with them; but you don't forget who you are and who they are. The majority of the time I am friendly with them and I laugh with them without ever crossing the boundaries of when it's appropriate and when it's not. I think it is a positive thing.

Socializing with coworkers is a relevant concern for female wardens. The women in this study discussed the problems that can arise from socializing with staff, such as difficulty maintaining boundaries, discipline problems, and personality differences. One participant encountered difficulties in regard to personal or dating relationships:

I learned my lesson years ago about dating or getting close to people you work with. Can you say "trouble"? I only [socialize] during work or at work related functions or sometimes "Team Building" get-togethers.

Another stated the difficulties associated with socializing with staff, dealing with discipline, and maintaining security at the institution:

I always want them to know that I am the superintendent. I don't have friends on the job. It is difficult dealing with discipline problems. Our first priority should be the security of the facility. I attend social functions; but when it turns to dancing and partying I go home. I don't want them to see me and I don't want to see them. I draw the line as to what kinds of activities to get involved in. The former assistant superintendent had lots of friends on the job. He would go to the bars with employees and often had to sleep in the unit because he couldn't go home to his wife. It was very wrong.

One participant was perceived to have a bad personality because she refused to socialize with coworkers:

One warden wanted me to be more charming. I told him to be more charming. If I am not charming than I am a bitch? I struggle with that [socializing], it's difficult. I don't want to be buddies. It is different for women and men. People try to be careful with women; but not with men, they are always together.

Another respondent indicated that she had problems socializing with anybody because she worked at a small facility in a small community and worked at the discretion of the governor and the Department of Corrections:

It is hard to socialize with anybody; you can't socialize with inmates and staff. I am single and it is hard to develop long-term relationships because the department could call and say we're going to promote you and you have to move here. You don't find many men who will jump up and follow a woman around; traditionally the woman follows the man around. I have not been married for 10 years because of that. I have friends outside the department. I bowl to get away from here and to be around people that don't have anything to do with corrections. I also crochet a lot and get involved with my kids’ activities.

One warden indicated the problems associated with socializing and maintaining boundaries:

Personal life is personal. I don't interact with staff on a personal level and I don't have personal relationships with staff. It is the same with offenders; but a more dramatic line. You don't put yourself on a personal level with offenders at all. I don't socialize with them away from here. I attend scheduled functions, softball games, the Christmas party, etc. You have a very difficult time separating that. If you socialize with them [staff] the line gets grayer and grayer and it can be difficult on both ends.

Another respondent noted the change in relationships with staff members after she became a warden:

It may be even more important from coworkers than inmates when you’re a warden. Before I was warden I was much closer to staff, we were one big family. We ate together partied together; it was a place without barriers. When I became warden at another facility part of that change took over. Ultimately staff messes up, you have to take off your drinking with you hat and put on your warden hat. I was comfortable with doing that; but they [staff] felt betrayed. I learned that lesson and have been much more careful. I select people with who I have had relationships and I am confident that if they get into hot water, my warden hat is going on and we have to deal with each other that way.

Female wardens are consistent, firm, honest, respectful, and professional. By engaging in those behaviors, they have established and maintained professional boundaries. The most common strategies are to avoid discussing one's personal matters in the workplace and establishing and maintaining boundaries. Some female wardens set different boundaries for inmates and different boundaries for staff. The majority agreed that they do not socialize with staff outside the institution. The women in this study discussed the problems that can arise from socializing with staff, such as difficulty maintaining boundaries, discipline problems, and personality differences.


This research reaffirmed that corrections is a male-dominated field and women's entry into corrections and how they identified themselves in the masculine organizational culture. It also identified several strategies female prison wardens use to negotiate reality in their daily work routines. Most of the women in this study reported that they were not prepared to work in a non-traditional occupation and had to develop strategies for dealing with resentment, acceptance, stereotypes, harassment, and discrimination. The participants in this study carefully negotiated interactions with inmates and coworkers to build and maintain professional relationships. Once on the job, these women realized they had to prove themselves by working harder than men, they were subject to constant scrutiny and held to higher standards of professionalism. Despite this, they succeeded in corrections by building positive impressions and avoiding negative stereotypes. These women realized their contributions to the field of corrections.


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