Women in Crime

Criminal behavior can be best predicted on the basis of gender - men commit more crime than women. This fact is valid throughout history, across all societies, for all groups and almost every crime category. Understanding why crime levels among women are lower can help shed light on the underlying causes of crime and ways to improve the control over it. Arrest rates among women are lower than among men for virtually all crime categories except prostitution. All countries for which data are available have shown the same trend. This fact is also true for all racial and ethnic groups as well as for every historical period. Representation of women is especially low in serious crime categories.

Excluding prostitution, the proportion of female arrests has been the biggest for minor property crimes such as fraud, larceny-theft, embezzlement and forgery. Women typically commit thefts and frauds such as shoplifting, passing bad checks, and welfare and credit fraud. All of these categories are compatible with traditional consumer/domestic roles of women. A variety of sources show women are less involved in serious offense categories, while they also commit less harm. Female acts of violence, compared to male ones, cause fewer and less serious injuries. In addition, women's property crimes usually involve less property damage or less monetary loss. Women are less likely than men to become repeat offenders. Women very rarely pursue long-term careers in crime. Some women have relatively brief careers, when compared to male criminal careers, in prostitution, drug offenses or minor property crimes such as shoplifting or check forging.

Women, more often than men, operate on their own. If they become involved with others in offenses, the group is likely to be small as well as relatively nonpermanent. In addition, in group operations women are generally accomplices to men. They are also far less likely than men to become involved in delinquent gangs. The lower official offending rates of females in comparison to males may be explained partly by the criminal justice system's greater "leniency" and "chivalry" toward women. However, the justice system has become less lenient and chivalrous toward women and this may explain rising levels of female arrests. While adult women appear as likely as men to be arrested or convicted, female defendants appear less likely to be jailed or imprisoned. A number of factors appear related to this difference, including pregnancy and responsibilities for small children. Women are more likely to demonstrate remorse while they are also perceived as less dangerous and more amenable to rehabilitation, which can also help them in court.

However, there are also a number of similarities in offending rates and patterns among men and women. Both men and women have low rates of arrest for serious crimes such as homicide and robbery, while having high rates for petty property crimes or public order offenses. Arrest trends among women and men over time or across geographic regions or groups are similar. That is, groups or regions or decades with high (or low) rates of male crime tend to also have high (or low) rates of female crime. Age-crime distribution among men and women are similar, but male offender numbers are always higher than female at every age and for virtually all offenses. The only exception is prostitution, where female arrests are higher among the young, while the level of male arrests is higher at an older age. The backgrounds of female offenders, like male offenders, tend to be marked by poverty, poor schooling, discrimination and other disadvantages. However, female offenders are somewhat more likely than male offenders to have been abused psychologically, physically or sexually, both in childhood and as adults.

Some writers claim that female crime has been rising at a faster rate than male crime. This trend has been true in the case of minor property crimes, substance abuse categories and major property crimes. However, the percentage of female arrests has fallen in categories such as homicide and prostitution. According to a theoretical framework by Darrell Steffensmeier and Emilie Allan, continued profound differences between the lives of men and women result in varying patterns of male and female offending. According to them, at least five areas of life tend to inhibit female crime, encourage male crime and also shape the patterns of women's offending that does occur. The five areas are gender norms, moral development and affiliative concerns, social control, physical strength and aggression, and sexuality. These five areas, which overlap and mutually reinforce one another, determine gender differences in criminal motives, opportunities, and contexts of offending.

Women in Crime: Selected full-text books and articles

Women Who Offend By Gill McIvor Jessica Kingsley, 2004
Crime, Gender, and Social Order in Early Modern England By Garthine Walker Cambridge University Press, 2003
Women in the Criminal Justice System By Clarice Feinman Praeger, 1994 (3rd edition)
Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer By Michael D. Kelleher; C. L. Kelleher Praeger, 1998
Criminals and Folk Heroes: Gangsters and the FBI in the 1930s By Robert Underhill Algora, 2015
Librarian's tip: Includes chapters on Bonnie Parker, Blanche Barrow and "Ma" Barker.
Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South By Victoria E. Bynum University of North Carolina Press, 1992
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