Breaking barriers: A female forensic eye in a male-dominated field

August 23, 2023

My name is Laura Mitton and I hold the rank of Warrant Officer in the South African Police Service (SAPS). I am currently employed as a Forensic Analyst specialising in Forensic Ballistics and I work at the Forensic Science Laboratory located in Cape Town, South Africa. This has been my story thus far.

Throughout history, the perception of male masculinity has been glorified as a crucial aspect of law enforcement and policing worldwide. Societal constructs, ranging from cultural and religious beliefs to warfare and conflict, have consistently emphasised masculine qualities such as bravery, strength, and heroism, considering them vital for the survival of humanity. Consequently, a conventional consensus has been established, suggesting that only the strongest and bravest should be responsible for protecting and ensuring the well-being of others, while women have mostly been viewed as those in need of protection rather than protectors. This norm has persisted for generations.

South Africa, with its complex history marked by political, racial and societal discrimination, has also adhered to this norm. In the face of past atrocities, men in the country were tasked with fighting these injustices, often leading to women and children becoming vulnerable and unfortunate victims in these conflicts. However, when the era of freedom and democracy dawned in 1994, there was hope not only for positive economic change but also for addressing gender disparities within law enforcement. Unfortunately, the past few decades of democracy have witnessed a rise in issues such as crime, corruption, and frequent power blackouts commonly known as load-shedding, indicating that South Africa’s problems are far from resolved. Furthermore, recent events, including South Africa’s strained relationship with the US ambassador and its stance on the ongoing Russia/Ukraine war, have cast the country in an unfavourable light. Many believe that these factors will contribute to further destabilising an already fragile economy.

One positive development in South Africa has been the significant increase in women joining the law enforcement industry. Prior to the government change-over in 1994, women were predominantly employed as clerks and typists within SAPS, with senior SAPS management consisting of 1% females and 99% males. However, with the introduction of the Gender Desk and the SAPS Women’s Network, this ratio gradually shifted to 36.2% women and 63.8% men by 2017. In 2018, SAPS launched the Women’s Empowerment Agenda 2019-2024, aimed at eradicating discrimination against women and addressing gender inequalities that existed within SAPS due to the previous patriarchal society and system. This agenda has further bolstered the representation of women in recent years, although the most recent statistics are not known at this time. This progress includes all departments within SAPS, including the Forensic Science Services, which is the area of my particular interest.

From a young age, I developed a profound interest in forensic science and its role in apprehending suspects in criminal cases. During my university studies, as there were no undergraduate programs in forensic science at the time, I tailored my undergraduate qualification to align with the field as best I could. However, in recent years, several South African universities have introduced undergraduate programs majoring in forensic science. Following my initial degree, I was accepted to pursue a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Medical Criminalistics and subsequently a Master of Science (MsC) at the University of Pretoria. During this time, I gained practical experience by accompanying a Forensic Pathologist to the Pretoria Medico-Legal Laboratory, where I attended post-mortem examinations and learned about various aspects of death investigation. After completing my qualifications, I secured a position as a Forensic Ballistics Analyst at the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in CapeTown, within SAPS. I underwent four years of extensive in-service training in ballistics and toolmark examination and currently possess over five years of work experience in case work and crime scene investigation.

Embarking on my journey in the medico-legal and law enforcement industry, I was acutely aware of the hierarchical and patriarchal system deeply entrenched within it. As a young female starting out in my career, I knew I would face challenges of gender bias and stereotypes along the way. However, what I didn’t initially anticipate was the nuanced gendered perspectives that I would encounter. On one hand, as expected, I have been confronted with instances of chauvinism and discrimination based solely on my gender with no regard for my work ethic or abilities. An example of this occurred on my first day on the job. While initially completing paperwork with the other successful applicants, a man who had been employed in the Biology Unit glanced over and noticed that I had been assigned the Ballistics position, one of only two available posts. He remarked, “Oh, you took my job, That’s the one I wanted”. When I inquired why he believed I took his job, he responded, “Well I’m a man. Guns are for men, not women”. Unbeknownst to him, I had just spent two years working on my Master’s dissertation which focused solely on forensic ballistics and I had an already clear understanding of firearms and their mechanisms. However, once I settled into my Unit and the formalities were behind me, a shift in perspective began to occur.

To my surprise, it became apparent almost immediately that the gender ratio within the work environment was not what I initially expected. Considering the nature of my work involving guns and ammunition, I had presumed I would be entering a predominantly male-dominated space. However, the reality proved to be quite the opposite as it became evident that there was approximately one male for every four females. Furthermore, the distribution of supervisors (who hold the rank of Captain) were equal between men and women, and a quarter of top management positions (ranks of Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel) were held by women. Notably, a woman led the training divisions, with the majority of trainers being female. In recent developments, since a woman was promoted to the position of Operations Commander, women now represent half of top management.

Upon my appointment, I found it intriguing that the last man hired in our unit was four years prior. Curious about the reasons behind this gender distribution, I asked our then Ballistics Commander (Colonel) why female applicants were more successful than males, given that men accounted for around 70% of the applications. He explained that women consistently performed notably better in both the testing aspect of the interview, which included written, memory and analytical assessments, as well as the verbal interview, which focussed on questions regarding real-life scenarios. Furthermore, I wondered if this gender distribution was an isolated occurrence in my unit or if it was representative of the whole FSL. Upon researching, I discovered that women accounted for over 65% of the analysts employed within our FSL, which consists of five sections: Ballistics, Biology (DNA and biological material), Chemistry (drugs), Scientific Analysis (CCTV footage, etc.) and Question Documents (counterfeit money and fraudulent documents). Surprisingly, this gender ratio appeared to be relatively consistent across all four FSL’s in South Africa, located in Cape Town, Pretoria (Headquarters), Durban and Port Elizabeth.

Throughout my time of employment, almost everything I have come to know and learn about this science has been taught and demonstrated to me by women. My training program covered various essential aspects of ballistics including practical and summative learning, laboratory practices, firearm handling, and crime scene management. This included, but was not limited to, ammunition and firearm identification, examination and testing, microscopic comparisons and individualisation of fired bullets and cartridge cases which enable us to link them to each other or to a specific gun or crime scene/s. Additionally, the training covered serial number restoration, toolmark examination and individualisation, home-made and replica firearms, crime scene photography and investigation, report writing and expert testimony in court proceedings. Our case work encompasses a combination of all of these aspects but is dependent on the requirements of the specific case.

While the majority of my job involves casework, a portion of it includes fieldwork. This entails being on standby for all shooting-related crime scenes that occur within our jurisdiction. Once fully qualified, you partner up with another senior analyst and get added to the standby roster. Every eight weeks, your team will be on standby for a whole week, from Friday to Friday, during which you get allocated a trainee still undergoing training. Throughout the standby week, you are on call 24/7 and are required to assist in any way possible. Our jurisdiction encompasses multiple provinces within South Africa, with the majority of the scenes we get called to attend occurring within the Cape Flats - a collection of lower-income populations within Cape Town where crime and gangsterism are rife. This part of the job is somewhat nerve-wracking, as these areas are some of the most dangerous in the country. Given that women make up the majority of our Unit, there are predominantly all-female standby teams. Unfortunately, this adds to the uneasy feeling one gets when responding to calls in these areas. However, I have been part of multiple all-women standby teams and despite frequently encountering misogynistic remarks and disrespect from male counterparts on crime scenes, as well as feeling threatened by on-lookers and our surroundings, we always persevere in performing our duties and getting the job done without fail.

Being employed in this role has been both personally demanding and rewarding. The role comes with various frustrations and limitations that are widespread across SAPS, such as budget constraints, procurement issues, and corruption, which significantly add to the difficulty of our jobs. Moreover, the deep levels of trauma we often encounter first hand make this no easy task. On the other hand, being able to thoroughly and diligently investigate crime scenes, analyse crucial evidence, and ultimately assist the courts in sentencing the criminals responsible for causing such immense trauma and destruction to families makes this job worth it. Throughout my career thus far, I have had the privilege of working under, learning from, and being mentored by some of the most fearless and resilient women I have ever known. It is my aspiration to become one of these women one day and inspire future females seeking to build careers in forensics, law enforcement, and peacekeeping. The world needs more of us.

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