Law enforcement and other criminal justice-related career fields are largely male-dominated. A program in Illinois State University’s Department of Criminal Justice Sciences is working to shift that gender dynamic. The Breaking Barriers program provides added support for female students pursuing criminal justice careers.

Cara Rabe-Hemp

Cara Rabe-Hemp

“One of the biggest barriers is that women don’t often think of themselves in those professions,” said Professor Cara Rabe-Hemp. “We’re working to overcome gender stereotypes about the field and give female students the skills they need to thrive in criminal justice careers. We want women to see the wide array of potential career options available to them in policing and other criminal justice fields.”

The Breaking Barriers program hosts events throughout the academic year, including professional development activities that stress job preparation and interviewing skills, business etiquette, professional communication, goal setting, and work-life balance. The program also provides numerous opportunities for students to interact with women working in emergency management, law enforcement, and other criminal justice professions.

Unlike a registered student organization, Breaking Barriers is a departmental initiative that brings together a cohort of students, ranging from freshmen to graduate students. Students can join the program on their own, but most of those involved have been nominated for inclusion by Criminal Justice faculty members. Faculty nominate students they feel show leadership potential or those who could use some extra encouragement to continue pursuing a career in criminal justice.

image of Graduates of the Breaking Barriers program

Graduates of the Breaking Barriers program

Since the program began in 2009, the cohort system has proven itself to be especially effective. Students at all levels are able to interact, providing a network of academic, professional, and social support. The program also helps freshman and transfer students integrate into the major and make beneficial connections.

“One of the popular events is a field trip to the Illinois State Police Training Academy,” said Tracy Wehrle, professional practicum coordinator. “The students get a chance to see what the academy is like, especially the physical training sessions. The physical aspects of police work are often the most intimidating for women. We want female students to see that police work is indeed a career that’s open to them.”

image of Tracy Wehrle

Tracy Wehrle

Criminal Justice Sciences alumni play an important role in the Breaking Barriers program, forming the backbone of a growing network of professional mentors. Rabe-Hemp and Wehrle would like to see that network grow further so that each student in the program can be matched with a mentor for job shadowing and professional development.

“Students really thrive in the program and often go on to seek out leadership opportunities in other organizations on campus,” said Rabe-Hemp. “Breaking Barriers has helped a lot of female students realize that policing and criminal justice careers don’t have to be male-dominated. There are a lot of opportunities for women. Frankly we’re waiting for the day when we don’t need a program like this.”