When it comes to working in a man’s world there can be no bigger challenge than being a female police officer. Even in TV drama world there is Inspector Morse, Cracker, Foyle’s War and Columbo and not many of your Cagney & Laceys.
This month’s Inspirational Woman may only be one of just a few female Superintendents, but she is doing what she always wanted to do and that’s “make a difference”.
Sam De Reya started her police career jumping over fences in Gateshead, working for the Northumbria Police, chasing offenders with police helicopters hovering overhead.
However, falling in love with a soldier based in Devon meant that Sam found herself moving to set up home some 18 years ago but she has never looked back.
She explains: “I did initially think that life as police officer maybe a bit quieter away from city life. When I first joined I brought my ‘burglar kit’ into work that I had used a lot back home and my boss asked why on earth I had that as there are very few burglaries down here and if there are we know who they are!”
Despite first impressions there have certainly been times when being an officer in Devon has been challenging but Sam feels her early career has really helped: “I worked in customer service originally and a couple of times I had got the police application form but kept putting it off.
“However, when I was 23 years old I went for it and I’m glad I was that age as by then I had a bit of life experience.”
Without doubt the police force has traditionally been a very male-dominated environment; 21 years ago Sam was the only female in a team of 15 men. “There have been times when I have taken on a male persona to suit the role – especially when I was a Detective Inspector where I wore men’s-style suit.”
Thankfully, things are now very different and Sam has gone on to break the mould. She was the first female DI in Teignbridge and the first in East and Mid Devon and because of this Sam has found a real purpose in mentoring others to fulfil their potential.
“When I am mentoring I always talk about working the long hours and the feeling you have to replicate the people around you. But I’ve discovered that actually the most successful I’ve been is when I’ve been myself. You don’t have to sell your soul to be successful.”
Sam’s refreshing approach to “having it all” certainly hits home with many: “Lots of people say they like me as a mentor because I’ve made mistakes and I’m prepared to laugh at myself and own up to them.”
With two children and a husband who is now a Colonel in the Army and often away from home for long periods of time it can’t be easy also having an extremely responsible job? Sam’s answer is one that many working mums rely on and that’s her mum!
“She lives next door and is simply amazing at helping out but my husband is also so great at supporting me even if it has to be on the other end of the phone.
“Yes, it can be tricky at times when I have to work late, and some days tea can be a bit ropey, but I know my kids are really proud of what I do. My daughter has already joined the cadets in Exeter!”
Out on the street there are those that don’t like to be told what to do by a woman: “There have been a couple of times in my career where I have felt nervous of being a woman in my role and having to use a bit of force, but working with such supportive teams always helps. Actually, women are really good at defusing situations and communicating.”
Sam didn’t find coming back to work easy after having children and in the early days getting a promotion or landing a specialist role was a battle. But she feels that things are better now although there is always room for improvement and that’s where she comes in.
She leads support groups for women in the same rank as her and others working their way up the career ladder. She is also the head of a Standards and Anti-Corruption unit and leading the way for more support on LGBT issues.
There is one thing though that Sam firmly believes in and that is don’t complain about it, make a difference and that is what she is doing, for herself and many others.
Who inspires Sam?
Without a doubt, my mum. Her values and outlook are one of the reasons I am a police officer.
She is so good at looking after others and a brilliant grandma but also a great sounding board.
I can come home emotionally and physically drained and she is there with a cup of tea and a listening ear, which means so much.