ALITTLE more than a quarter of police officers in Scotland are women.

A generation on from the sex discrimination and equal pay acts, this is a disappointing figure. When just three of the top 25 roles in Scotland's new police service are occupied by women and only 18 of the 50 chief superintendents are female, the lack of women in the top ranks amounts to a serious deficit at a time when change in organisational structure provides a rare opportunity to present the police as an inclusive, forward-looking body.

It is therefore heartening that the highest-raking female police officer in Scotland, Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick, one of four deputies in the tier below the chief constable, says in an interview in The Herald today that attracting more women into the service has been agreed by senior officers as a priority for the new force.

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The low number of female officers in the top ranks is a direct consequence of fewer women than men joining the police. However, it is not a problem that can be solved entirely by encouraging more women to join. As with other professions, being open to both sexes and attracting a fair proportion of women at entry level does not result in equal numbers at the top. A number of factors contribute to this inequality but childcare responsibilities are the most significant. Where, as in the police service, the job requirements include working irregular or unsocial hours, the difficulties are undeniably greater. Mrs Fitzpatrick's recognition of the need to make sure there are development opportunities for women – and for people from every part of Scotland – is a welcome step forward. It can only succeed, however, with a recognition that not only mothers but fathers must be able to balance the demands of work with the care of children.

While the number of women in the police service in Scotland is still too low, it has grown noticeably over recent years. Just as serious is the lack of a proportionate representation of all Scotland's ethnic communities. No matter how well-trained and professional a police service is, it can only be fully effective when its officers reflect the community they serve. However even-handed and impartial its members, if a force is drawn disproportionately from one ethnic group or one gender, it fuels a perception of prejudice. To attract the high quality recruits from a wide range of backgrounds necessary to avoid that, Scotland's new police service must visibly demonstrate that there is an opportunity for all to progress to high rank.