Police officers in the UK

Systemcraft in action: Fighting institutional sexism within the Met Police

Stella Odhiambo

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Why things needed to change

In September 2021, it was reported that more than 750 police employees had faced allegations of sexual misconduct since the year 2010, with only 83 having been dismissed. Following that, 50 investigators were brought in to review around 300 cases where allegations had been made against Met officers.

With its toxic history, it’s no wonder that when Tara McGovern first joined the Metropolitan Police Service, commonly known as the Met, over 25 years ago, she admits that women were poorly treated and often the victims of inappropriate behaviour and misconduct. Throughout her career, she felt, however, that things were progressing for the better – and then came the high-profile murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021.

When it was discovered that her attacker was a then-serving police officer, it was one case out of many that sparked national outrage and called for urgent action to tackle violence against women. However, for McGovern and many of her co-workers, the shock and anger hit even closer to home.

The feelings of betrayal were further compounded by colleagues who denied there was an underlying systemic misogyny problem within the organisation to begin with.

The series of events following the poor way in which Everard’s case was handled ultimately drove McGovern to set up the Network of Women and later, with the help and collaboration of the Forward Institute, Operation Signa, a project that worked to capture the experiences of women within the Met and use these stories to educate others and create change.

They collected stories, anonymised them, and then shared them with the entire 45,000-large organisation. They also created a Signa app for training purposes.

Systemcraft in action

Systemcraft helps answer the question, ‘So what do we do next?’. At this point, the problem was clear to McGovern, but she needed practical tools to achieve positive change. At that time, she was part of the Forward Institute’s Fellowship programme where Wasafiri’s Kate Simpson was teaching Systemcraft as part of the programme.

“I’ve tried to bring about change in the past that hasn’t landed, and Kate opened my eyes to looking at this in a different way including by asking “what are the blockers of this change?”

Tara McGovern, Metropolitan Police Service

Three key learnings:

  1. Identify your blockers early on – In hindsight, McGovern wished she had taken the time to really consider what the blockers would be earlier on. She would ask questions like ‘who has the most to lose from this change? Who could this change negatively impact?’ sooner.
  2. Change is collective – The potential to change systems depends on our ability to work collectively. From her Deputy Commissioner to volunteers and sponsors, to the brave women who came forward to have their stories documented and all the way to institutions such as the Forward Institute, McGovern built coalitions along the way that helped her achieve the change she sought.
  3. Make it matter – McGovern tapped into an important dimension of transformation and that is, she made the issue matter to those who did not see the problem. She forged an inclusive movement championing a transformation and through storytelling and frank dialogue, she connected emotionally with people’s concerns and lived realities. “Once people became part of the solution, they could see the positive impact my work was having and wanted to do more.”

The outcome

Since Operation Signa launched in 2021, Signa training is mandated for all Met officers and staff. Sexism and sexual harassment are now openly discussed. In this friendlier environment, there has also been an increase in women reporting harassment. There is now a special unit that deals just with internal complaints of this nature.

As part of her new role as Head of Professional Standards at the Met, McGoven is part of the key team helping change the wider culture. “I would tell others who are trying to bring about change to get their heads around Systemcraft, as this has really explained change management to me in a way nothing else has.”

Hers is a brilliant story of how Systemcraft is equipping leaders and organisations with the skills and tools to drive system change at scale. In this case, creating systemic change to deal with the complex, murky problems of sexism within the Met.

Read more about Systemcraft

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