No 'macho' mantra for top cop

Top cop wants more women to join

JOELLE DALLY
Last updated 05:00 07/06/2014
Virginia Le Bas
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Fairfax NZ
VIRGINIA LE BAS: "Being a female detective inspector brings a point of difference. I don’t have that large physical presence. I’m not six foot and burly. You might have a little bit more ease of making a connection."

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Detective Inspector Virginia Le Bas has never tried to act macho.

That could be why people often assume she is "the typist" when she tells them she works for the police.

Le Bas has in fact led some of Canterbury's highest-profile criminal cases.

Her 23-year police career has seen her lead murder inquiries including Marie Davis in 2008, Tisha Lowry from 2008 to 2009, Vanessa Pickering in 2010, Jade Bayliss in 2011 and Sameera Chandrasena in 2012.

Le Bas, the only female commissioned officer in the Canterbury district, wants other policewomen to follow in her footsteps.

Figures show women make up 20 per cent of sworn police, but account for fewer than 10 per cent of commissioned officer positions, meaning they are inspector or above.

The New Zealand constabulary has about 1700 women, but only three - including former Canterbury district commander Sandra Manderson - have served in the top rank of superintendent.

Women make up 22 per cent of constables, 12 per cent of sergeants, 9.5 per cent of senior sergeants, and 9.7 per cent of commissioned officers, police figures show.

A 2007 report by Dame Margaret Bazley, stemming from a commission of inquiry into culture amid the ranks, found women were under-represented at senior levels and there was a culture of nepotism and discrimination.

Various initiatives since have addressed it - including Police Commissioner Mike Bush's recently-announced focus on recruiting more women to the 12,000-strong ranks.

A reality TV show called Women in Blue launched in April.

Le Bas, who has just been seconded to work as Bush's senior adviser, said being a woman had helped, rather than hindered, her work.

"Being a female detective inspector brings a point of difference. I don't have that large physical presence. I'm not six foot and burly. I think a woman can be seen as less threatening in certain situations - either with an offender or victims.

"You might have a little bit more ease of making a connection, or a communication."

Le Bas taught physical education at Cashmere High School before she joined the police in 1991.

She spent 18 months on the front line before joining criminal investigations (CIB). She spent five years as detective, and promotions followed.

Her high-profile cases came after 2008, when she ran the CIB in what was then the city's northern area.

Le Bas is now a field crime manager based at Christchurch South Police Station, where she heads the organised, volume and youth crime units.

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Police culture had changed in line with society. She had always resisted acting like a man, she said. The job was not all "car chase, foot chase, handcuff". Films portraying powerful women as "tough" annoyed her.

"You might swim against the tide a little bit but I wouldn't change to be part of the greater group. That can sometimes be difficult, as you can be the only woman sitting in a room of men.

"That's part of my mantra, to be true to myself."

Le Bas opposed a gender quota system because of the risk of setting people up to fail.

However, she felt a sense of responsibility to "keep the door open" for other women.

"Women are the largest minority. I'm in a position where I can encourage and I can be a role model. To have diversity, it gives so many more options."

Holding a senior police role had its trade-offs, including long hours and stress.

However, she is adamant she is not a "career person".

A retro-style commuter bike parked in her office paid testament to her "work-life balance" mantra.

"People say, I'm a career woman. They think you are because you've got rank. But I'm not. I enjoy working. I enjoy people."

Le Bas returns from her secondment later this month.

- The Press

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