As a young police officer called to a domestic violence incident, her first instinct was to respond to the call for help.
Instead, she was pulled back to the office and told that it would be inappropriate for her to attend because she was a woman.
It was the early 1990s — and just one example given by Det-Sen. Sgt Laura Russ of how far WA’s police force, once a “bloke’s environment” — has come over the past three decades.
“We were told to come back into the office to swap officers because it would be more appropriate for two male officers to go to the family violence incident rather than a male and a female,” Det-Sen. Sgt Russ said.
“I was thinking … I get paid the same as these guys, I get the same training as everyone else and I get pulled out to come back to the office … and two guys go out and manage it.”
Now, Det-Sen. Sgt Russ leads a team of detectives in South Hedland, working on some of the most serious crimes in the East Pilbara.
And dealing with family violence and child abuse, particularly among Indigenous communities, has become a passion of hers, earning her an Australian Police Medal.
She is just one of the female officers who have broken the police force’s glass ceiling to hold powerful positions within the force, including serious and organised crime division acting Det-Insp. Andrea Smith.
Det-Insp. Smith leads the teams in the serious and organised crime division’s drug and firearm and border operations squads which have been behind several recent high-profile drug and cash seizures.
She has risen through the ranks despite — like many women — having put her career on hold for a decade while she raised a family.
“That was probably been the biggest challenge for me, that period of being a new mum and still trying to be involved in work and be relevant, but also trying to prove yourself to others that even as a part-time worker you’re still a good colleague and can work hard,” she said.
Det-Insp. Smith said fortunately, policing was now a lot more flexible. And she said she drew inspiration from other women leading the way in WA Police, including Kylie Whiteley, who became WA’s first deputy police commissioner last year.
She said women brought a unique point of view to crime solving, adding “I think there’s a lot that could be said about embedding women of all ranks into different areas of policing to get the best outcome”.
Det-Sen. Sgt Russ concurred. When asked what International Women’s Day meant to her, she replied: “That women from any kind of area can go into a chosen career and be a success”.
“It doesn’t matter how big or small that success is, success is defined by you,” she said.
“Take me for example, I came from a cattle station in the Kimberley and I grew up there and then came into policing, so to me that was a big step and I thought, ‘wow, I can achieve this’.
“International Women’s Day is about saying no matter what your cultural background is, no matter what your economic background is, it doesn’t matter where you come from, if you’ve got a dream then you need to follow it because you can achieve it.”
WA Police say there are currently 1815 female officers in the force, which amounts to about 25 per cent of sworn officers.