Wearing a nine-kilogram weighted vest, Cst. Amanda Nelles climbed over a 1.8-metre wall during a test of physical and mental endurance for the RCMP's Emergency Response Team (ERT).
Nelles, who works in Winnipegosis, Man., is one of eight women who tried out for ERT last year, causing a spike in the number of female applicants from previous years.
About one female officer and up to 100 male officers apply each year.
The spike might be the result of changes made to the ERT program beginning in 2015, which included the physical standards, the selection process and the course. The purpose of the changes was to identify and address barriers — actual or perceived — that might hold officers back from applying to the program for reasons unrelated to the actual job.
"We were seeing a decrease in applicants across the country, so it was to the program's benefit that we examine the process to increase the appeal for both male and female applicants," says Insp. Adam MacNeill. He was the officer in charge of the National ERT Program at the time of the initial changes.
In 2012, the Canadian Police College surveyed female RCMP officers and interviewed former female ERT trainees. The results showed that the most common barriers to women applying for ERT were the fitness standards, a perceived unwelcoming work environment and work-life balance.
One major change to the program was the removal of outdated physical standards, which included a 2.5-kilometre run, pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups and an infamous 65-kilogram bench press.
"They're not really representative of the job function," says MacNeill. "There was a need to modernize the approach and make sure that the activities we were undertaking actually translated to what you'd end up doing as an ERT member."
Physical requirements are now tested only with the ERT Physical Abilities Requirement Evaluation (PARE). Exercises like the weighted-vest wall climb are job-specific, gender-neutral and backed by science and psychology, he says.
S/Sgt. Val Brooks was the first and only female ERT member in the RCMP, serving on the team from 2004 to 2008. She says a long-standing, male-dominated profession can create an intimidating working environment that could discourage some women from applying.
"I have fond memories of my time on the team," says Brooks. "But I also felt a lot of pressure as a woman. I never wanted to make a mistake because then people would say, 'See, we always said a woman wasn't capable of doing this job.' "
Removing perceptions like that helps ensure there's no discrimination in the selection process and that officers hired are the best for the job, says National ERT Co-ordinator Christian Dupuis.
Brooks says she's seen a shift in the old-boys-club mindset and that today, women are more likely shying away from ERT because of perceived challenges with work-life balance.
"There're definitely women in our organization who are capable but they have other priorities," says Brooks.
Being a member of ERT is a big commitment, admits MacNeill.
Most ERT officers are on part-time teams and must maintain their primary full-time RCMP positions and be ready to respond to ERT calls at a moment's notice. This, combined with the demands of monthly training and the need to maintain an above average fitness level, can be too demanding for some.
But if it's the right fit, the career is worth pursuing if you have a strong support system at home, says Nelles, who participated in one of three pilot selection processes conducted between 2015 and 2018.
"I used to do Olympic weight-lifting before joining the RCMP," says Nelles, "And the more I looked into ERT, the more it fit who I am outside of wanting to be a police officer."
Though she didn't pass the ERT PARE, Nelles says with the right training, she'll be better prepared for the next one.
Chances are she won't be the only one trying again. According to Dupuis, regardless of gender, for every 24 candidates who complete the first phase of the selection process, only six make it to the next step.
"The fact that I was successful in passing the national course shows that women are capable of doing the job," says Brooks. "And now that they've removed all the barriers, the door is wide open."