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Nicola Smith-Kea, Ph.D. is a 2020 graduate of the PHD Program in Leadership and Change at Antioch University.

Dr. Nicola Smith-Kea at her Dissertation Defense.

From L-R: Dr. Elizabeth Holloway, Committee Chair, Dr. Dorothy M. Schulz, Committee Member, Dr. Lize Booysen, Committee Member

Dissertation Committee

  • Elizabeth Holloway, Ph.D., Committee Chair
  • Lize Booysen, Ph.D., Committee Member
  • Dorothy M. Schulz, Ph.D., Committee Member


Grounded Theory, Situational Analysis, organizational change, positive psychology, leadership, executive leadership, chief of police, police chief, policing culture, women in policing, police women, intersectionality, equality, equity, inclusion

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The world of women in law enforcement is a thought-provoking one that has received increasing attention both in academia as well as in practice over the past few decades. Even more intriguing, and despite advances in the profession, is the low number of women in executive leadership positions in law enforcement. There is a vast underrepresentation of women in top executive leadership positions across the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. The purpose of this study was to gain an understanding of the complex journey of women to top executive policing leadership positions. Embracing a positive psychology approach, the study used grounded theory in combination with situational analysis to answer one overarching question: What have been the experiences of women leaders in policing as they have progressed in the profession to executive rank? This allowed for a comprehensive exploration of the micro, or individual level factors, alongside the meso or macro factors, encompassing larger group interactions, social structures, and institutions, that from the women’s perception had been critical in their leadership experiences. The study offers a theoretical model—A Web of Intersections—as a framework for understanding the complex journey of women, and the social processes and multiple intersections they have learned to navigate that can in combination, help them to advance to top executive policing leadership positions. The women in this study are agentic and not simply following the lead. They are active, deliberate, and intentional participants in their own journeys, making critical and strategic decisions that can gain entry to policy decision-making that can result in sustainable change. This dissertation is available in open access at AURA: Antioch University Repository and Archive, and OhioLINK ETD Center,


Nicola Smith-Kea

ORCID Scholar ID #: #0000-0003-2527-2937

Nicola “Nikki” Smith-Kea considers herself a change agent, with a deep passion for gender equity and equality. Nicola has extensive national experience working with a diverse cross-section of law enforcement agencies. She has deep knowledge and expertise at the intersection of law enforcement, mental health, substance use disorders, and homelessness; helping jurisdictions improve their responses to people in crises. She has also focused on recruitment, retention and inclusion of women in law enforcement, with expertise in female professional advancement to executive leadership positions in law enforcement. Nicola’s work with law enforcement extends to community-policing relationships and understanding violent crimes in communities. She explores strategies that improve outcomes that drive transformative solutions and policy change, cultivates trust between communities and police, and partners with organizations who are working to decrease the devastating costs of violence to ultimately save lives. She is committed to the mission of helping to advance police effectiveness and increase positive encounters between police and the community.

As a scholar-practitioner with multiple years of experience in policy, research and analysis at the international, national and local level, Nicola is skilled at working with and managing teams with diverse interests. She helps key stakeholders in communities to navigate challenges and work towards finding solutions through intentional coordination and collaboration to increase positive outcomes within communities through the promotion of data-driven, innovative cross-system responses. Nicola is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for Montgomery County, Maryland. As a CASA, she is a trained volunteer appointed by the Juvenile Court to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children. Nicola holds a PhD in Leadership and Change from Antioch University. Her work and research focus on the journey of women reaching top policing executive positions, untangling the complex factors that allowed them to succeed — or stood in their way. She calls this the “Web of Intersections.” She received an M.A. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and an M.A. in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has also received an M.S. in Sociology and a B.S. in Psychology and Sociology from the University of the West Indies, Jamaica.