What WLI Gave to Me

Guest Blogger: Captain Jill Dolce, California Highway Patrol

It’s easy, as a woman in law enforcement, particularly as a woman of rank, who, all too often, is the only female in the room, to find myself isolated and discounted—whether intentionally or otherwise. This is not because I choose to be antisocial or because I don’t believe myself to be competent or contributory, nor is this a function of what I perceive as deep-seated misogyny. Rather, it’s usually the simple result of being female in a workforce that is not only traditionally male-dominated, but in a workforce that also, despite historical advances and great achievements by women in uniform, is finding its ranks of women diminishing, rather than increasing.

I work for a large agency—the California Highway Patrol—which, in my experience has largely proven to be progressive and accepting. My department was one of the first to recognize and offer domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples when those partnerships were formally recognized within the state. By the time same-sex marriage became legally recognized in the United States, the CHP didn’t bat an eye. My stepson, who is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair is one of my department’s non-uniformed members. My department has shown itself to be generally accepting and accommodating, which has made some of the disparities and inconsistencies I’ve experienced that much more puzzling and frustrating.

When I was given the unexpected opportunity to attend IACP’s Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI), it came at a time of particular frustration for me. I had scored highly on a recent promotional examination, but despite my best efforts, taking that next step in rank just didn’t seem like it was going to happen. After each interview in which I was told, “You did great, you’re just not the right fit,” I’d find myself trying to figure out just what the “right fit” was. This left me with the feeling that the “problem” was with me, but I couldn’t figure out what, exactly, the “problem” was. Because I was the only female in my then-assignment, I didn’t have someone to talk with who understood my frustrations or who even had a similar experience. So, while I found myself still dedicated firmly to my career, I was facing a little cognitive dissonance and feelings of futility.

What an unexpected, long-lasting gift WLI turned out to be. From the start, at the kickoff event, a meet and greet where we shared a short snippet of our respective stories with the intention of introducing ourselves to the instructors and one another, I was immediately embraced in what I will simply call shared experience. We were asked to stand up and tell the group a little bit about ourselves. While there were some parameters, we had the freedom to tell our story in the manner and amount of detail we chose. I talked briefly about my experience in the promotional process. I did so a bit hesitantly because the last thing I wanted to come across as was a whiner or a complainer. As I told my story, instead of the expected eye-rolls, I received nods of support, smiles of encouragement, and a deep, palpable, “I’ve been there too, sister,” vibe. It was amazing. When the meet and greet was over, one of the instructors immediately came up to me and shared her own promotional experiences and frustrations, as well as the admonition to never give up.

From that moment, I was hooked. We had long days, full of information-packed segments and content-rich instruction. As a group, we were encouraged to work together to find common ground and common solutions. As individuals, we were encouraged to speak up and speak out. There were no wrong answers. There were no less-than experiences. We were in a deeply informative, safe space, which fostered intellectual curiosity, deep exploration of the myriad of leadership topics and concepts presented, and reinforcement that it is not a bad thing to be a woman with ambition in a male-dominated field.

Many of the topics felt intuitive, yet instead of feeling as if I “already knew all of this,” I left each day with the feelings of vindication and affirmation, along with the recognition that my instincts toward leadership and being a female in a leadership role, in particular, were right on. The tools provided by our instructors as a way to help us further develop our leadership abilities were insightful and valuable. Since WLI, I’ve put many of these concepts to use with good results.

The opportunity to bond and develop friendships with women of achievement and accomplishment across such a broad spectrum is probably WLI’s best feature. The ability to network and to share ideas, concerns, successes, and temporary failures with so many women is an opportunity not readily had, with so few women scattered across so many law enforcement agencies. By simply listening to others’ experiences and solutions, I learned so much I’ve been able to apply in my own professional world.

There is something so enriching, so rewarding, and so soul-nourishing about being a part of a group who not only accepts you, but shares in who you are and what you have been through. Each block of instruction, each concept presented, and the insight and experience shared by our three instructors all reaffirmed that I, as a female in law enforcement, am not alone.

The Women’s Leadership Institute is a fantastic program. And, since attending WLI, I have achieved that next rank and am the commander of a high-profile and important office. They say there is no such thing as coincidence—I think I tend to agree.


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