One of the most widely accepted conclusions in criminology is that females are less likely than males to commit crime. The gender difference in crime is universal: Throughout history, for all societies, all groups, and nearly every crime category, males offend more than females. The correlation between gender and the likelihood of criminal involvement is quite remarkable, though many take it for granted.
Since the prototypical offender is a young male, most efforts to understand crime have been directed toward male crime. However, examining female crime and the ways in which female offending is similar to and different from male crime can contribute greatly to our understanding of the underlying causes of criminality and how it might better be controlled.
Similarities and Differences in Male and Female Offending
There are important similarities between male and female offending (Daly 1994; Steffensmeier and Allan 1996; Steffensme-ier and Schwartz 2004). First, females and males have similar patterns of offending with higher arrest rates for minor compared to serious offenses. Both males and females have much lower rates of arrest for serious crimes such as homicide or robbery and higher rates of arrest for minor property crimes such as larceny-theft, or public order offenses such as alcohol and drug offenses or disorderly conduct.
Second, female and male arrest patterns are similar over time and across groups and geographic regions. For example, in the second half of the twentieth century, both women’s and men’s rates of arrest increased dramatically for larceny-theft and fraud and declined even more dramatically in the category of public drunkenness. Similarly, states, cities, or countries that have higher than average arrest rates for men also have higher arrest rates for women (Steffensmeier and Allan 2000). This symmetry implies that there are similar social and legal forces underlying offending for both sexes.
Third, as is the case with male offenders, female offenders tend to come from backgrounds marked by poverty, discrimination, poor schooling, and other disadvantages. However, women who commit crime are somewhat more likely than men to have been abused physically, psychologically, or sexually, both in childhood and as adults.
While substantial similarities between female and male offending exist, any gender comparison of criminality must acknowledge significant differences as well.
First, females have lower arrest rates than males for virtually all crime categories except prostitution. This is true in all countries for which data are available. It is true for all racial and ethnic groups, and for every historical period.
Second, the biggest gender difference is the proportionately greater female involvement in minor property crimes, and the relatively greater involvement of males in more serious personal or property crimes. Relative to males, women’s representation in serious crime categories is consistently low. For example, since the 1960s in the United States, the female percent of arrests has generally been less than 15% for homicide, robbery, and burglary. Aside from prostitution, female representation has been greatest in the realm of minor property crimes such as larceny-theft, fraud, forgery, and embezzlement with female involvement as high as 30% to 45%, especially since the mid-1970s. The thefts and frauds committed by women typically involve shoplifting (larceny-theft), “bad checks” (forgery or fraud), low-level employee theft or fraud, and welfare and credit fraud—all compatible with traditional female consumer/domestic roles.
Third, when women do engage in serious offenses, they perpetrate less harm. Women’s acts of violence, compared to those of men, result in fewer and less serious injuries. Their property crimes usually involve less monetary loss or property damage.
Fourth, women are less likely than men to become repeat offenders, and long-term careers in crime are very rare among women. Some pursue relatively brief careers (in relation to male criminal careers) in prostitution, drug offenses, or minor property crimes like shoplifting or check forging.
Fifth, female offenders operate solo or in two- or three-person partnerships more often than male offenders do. Girls’ involvement in gangs remains relatively low, accounting for about 10% to 15% of gang members. When women do become involved with others in offenses, the group is likely to be small and relatively nonpermanent. Males are overwhelmingly dominant in the more organized and highly lucrative crimes and women’s roles in these operations are generally as accomplices to males or in other low-level positions (Steffensmeier 1983).
Sixth, the context of female offending differs from that of males. Even when the same offense is charged, there are often differences in the setting; victim-offender relationship; offender’s culpability, level of damage, modus operandi, and/or purpose; presence of co-offenders; and other contextual features. For example, whereas males tend to perpetrate violence in street or commercial settings against acquaintances or strangers, women are more likely to offend within or near the home against family or other primary group members. Female robbers typically are unarmed and victimize mainly other females, whereas male robbers are more likely to target other males by directly confronting them with physical violence and guns (Miller 1998).
Explaining Female Offending
Causal factors identified by traditional gender-neutral theories of crime such as anomie, social control, and differential association-social learning appear equally applicable to female and male offending (Steffensmeier and Allan 1996). For both males and females, the likelihood of criminal behavior is increased by weak social bonds and parental controls, low perceptions of risk, delinquent associations, chances to learn criminal motives and techniques, and access to criminal opportunities. In this sense, traditional criminological theories are as useful in understanding overall female crime as they are in understanding overall male crime. They can also help explain why female crime rates are so much lower than male rates. For example, females develop stronger bonds, are subject to stricter parental control, and have less access to deviant type-scripts and criminal opportunity.
On the other hand, a gendered approach may offer insight into the subtle and profound differences between female and male offending patterns. Recent “middle range” approaches, which typically draw from the expanding literatures on gender roles and feminism, typically link some aspect of female criminality to the “organization of gender” (that is, identities, roles, commitments, and other areas of social life that differ markedly by gender). These approaches delineate structural and subjective constraints placed on females that limit the form and frequency of female deviance (see, for example, Broidy and Agnew 1997; Cloward and Piven 1979; Harris 1977; Daly 1994; Chesney-Lind 1997; Gilfus 1992; Miller 1998; Richie 1996).
Steffensmeier and Allan (1996) draw on these approaches to identify at least five aspects of the organization of gender that tend not only to inhibit female crime and encourage male crime, but also to shape the patterns of female offending that do occur:
• Gender norms. Female criminality is both constrained and molded by gender norms. The constraints posed by child-rearing and other relational obligations are obvious. Femininity stereotypes (for example, nurturing, submissive) are the antithesis of those qualities valued in the criminal subculture (Steffensmeier 1983, 1986) and a criminal label is almost always more destructive of life chances for females than for males. In contrast, stereotypical ideas about masculinity and valued criminal traits share considerable overlap. Risk-taking behavior is rewarded among boys and men but censured among girls and women.
• Moral development and affiliative concerns. Women are more likely than men to subscribe to an ”ethic of care,” whether via socialization or differences in moral development or both (Gilligan 1982), that restrains them from violence and other behavior that may injure others or cause emotional hurt to those they love. Men, on the other hand, are more socialized toward status-seeking behavior and may therefore develop an amoral ethic when they feel those efforts are blocked.
• Social control. The ability and willingness of women to commit crime is powerfully constrained by social control. Particularly during their formative years, females are more closely supervised and discouraged from misbehavior. Careful monitoring of girls’ associates reduces the potential for influence by delinquent peers (Giordano, Cernkovich, and Pugh 1986). Even as adults, women find their freedom to explore worldly temptations constricted by social control.
• Physical strength and aggression. Gender differences in strength—whether actual or perceived—put females at a disadvantage in a criminal underworld where physical violence and power are functional not only for committing crimes, but also for protection, contract enforcement, and recruitment and management of reliable associates.
• Sexuality. Stereotypes of female sexuality both create and hinder certain criminal opportunities for women. The demand for illicit sex generates the opportunity for women to profit from prostitution, which may reduce the need for women to seek financial gain through serious property crimes. However, it is a criminal enterprise still largely controlled by men: pimps, clients, police, and businessmen. The extent and nature of involvement in other criminal groups, also predominantly controlled by men, are often limited to sexual service roles or other secondary positions.
These five aspects of the organization of gender overlap and mutually reinforce one another. In turn, they condition gender differences in criminal motives and opportunities and also shape contexts of offending. Offenders, male or female, tend to be drawn to criminal activities that are easy and within their skill repertoire, and that have a good payoff with low risk. The organization of gender limits the subjective willingness of women to engage in crime, but inclinations are further constrained by a lower level of criminal motivation and limited access to criminal opportunity.
Criminal motivation is suppressed in women by their greater ability to foresee threats to life chances, their predisposition to an ethic of care, and by the relative unavailability of female criminal typescripts that could channel their behavior. Women’s risk-taking preferences differ from those of men (Steffensmeier 1983; Steffensmeier and Allan 1996). Consistent with gendered relational obligations and norms of nurturance, women tend to take greater risks to protect loved ones or to sustain relationships. Men will take risks to build status or gain competitive advantage.
Limits on female access to legitimate opportunities also put constraints on their criminal opportunities, since women are less likely to hold jobs such as truck driver, dockworker, or carpenter, which would provide opportunities for theft, drug dealing, fencing, and other illegal activities. The scarcity of women in the top ranks of business and politics limits their chance for involvement in price-fixing conspiracies, financial fraud, and corruption. In contrast, abundant opportunities exist for women to commit petty forms of theft and fraud, low-level drug dealing, and sex-for-sale offenses.
Like the legitimate business world, the underworld has its glass ceiling. If anything, women face even greater occupational segregation in underworld crime groups, at every stage from selection and recruitment to opportunities for mentoring, skill development, and, especially, rewards (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 1991; Steffensmeier 1983; Steffensmeier and Ulmer 2005).
Recent Trends in Female-to-Male Offending
The perception that females are gaining equality has caused both the media and criminologists to question whether female crime is increasingly emulating more masculine forms and levels of offending and, if so, what explains this convergence in the gender gap.
Researchers have found that, for the most part, there has been neither a significant widening nor a significant narrowing of the gender gap in criminal offending during the past several decades (Steffensmeier 1993; Steffensmeier and Schwartz 2004). The main exceptions to this general pattern of stability in female-to-male offending (that is, much smaller female rates) involve (1) substantial increases in the female share of arrests for the minor property crimes of larceny-theft, forgery, and fraud where the female percent of arrests doubled between 1960 and 1975 (from around 15% to 30% or more), with slight additional increases since then; and (2) recent increases in the female share of arrests for criminal assault where simple assault increased from about 20% in 1980 to about 33% in 2004 and aggravated assault grew from 15% to 24%.
Some criminologists, as well as the media, have attributed the female increases in minor property crimes to gains in gender equality (for example, increased female labor force participation)—dubbing this phenomenon the ”dark side” of gender equality. However, other criminologists have pointed to the peculiarity of the view that improving girls’ and women’s economic conditions would lead to disproportionate increases in female crime when almost all the existing criminological literature stresses the role played by poverty, joblessness and marginal employment, and discrimination in the creation of crime (Miller 1986; Steffensmeier 1993; Steffensmeier and Allan 2000). In addition, it is generally not the ”liberated woman” who is offending; traditional rather than nontraditional gender views are associated with greater criminality (Pollock-Byrne 1990; Steffensmeier and Allan 2000). In this same vein, female property crimes continue to be mainly minor, low yield, and perpetrated within the context of stereotypical female roles (for example, consumer/domestic roles, pink-collar employment).
Instead, most students of female crime propose that a combination of factors explains the increases in female-to-male offending during the past several decades (Steffensmeier and Schwartz 2004). Besides possible changes in gender roles allowing girls and women greater independence from traditional constraints, these factors include the increasing economic marginalization of large segments of women; increased opportunities for traditionally female crime (for example, shoplifting, check fraud, welfare fraud); rising levels of drug use, which may increase motivational pressures and initiate females into the underworld; and the social and institutional transformation of the inner city toward greater detachment from mainstream social institutions. This body of explanations collectively asserts the possibility that girls’ and women’s lives and experiences are changing in ways that lead to profound shifts in their propensities or opportunities to commit crimes.
Another possibility is that female arrest gains are artifactual, a product of changes in public sentiment and enforcement policies that elevate the visibility, reporting, and sanctioning of female offenders. The rather large increase in female arrests for violence during the past two decades may be explained, in large part, by such changes. A recent study by Steffensmeier and colleagues (2005) finds that the rise in girls’ violence as counted in police arrest data from the Uniform Crime Reports is not borne out by other longitudinal sources that include unreported offenses independent of criminal justice selection biases. Victim reports of offender characteristics from the National Crime Victimization Survey along with the self-reported violent behavior of the Monitoring the Future and National Youth Risk Behavior Survey show little overall change in girls’ levels of violence during the past one or two decades and constancy in the gender gap in youth violence. Rather than girls and women becoming more violent, several net-widening policy shifts have apparently escalated their arrest-proneness: (1) the stretching of definitions of violence to include more minor incidents that girls and women in relative terms are more likely to commit, (2) the increased policing of violence between intimates and in private settings (for example, home, school) where female violence is more widespread, and (3) less tolerant family and societal attitudes toward female violence. This study provides strong evidence supporting the position that it is policy rather than behavioral change that is driving violent arrest trends.
The various aspects of the organization of gender discussed here help explain why women are far less likely than men to be involved in serious crime, regardless of data source, level of involvement, or measure of participation. Recent theory and research on female offending have added greatly to our understanding of how the lives of delinquent girls and women continue to be powerfully influenced by gender-related conditions of life. Profound sensitivity to these conditions is essential for understanding gender differences in type and frequency of crime, for explaining differences in the context or gestalt of offending, and for developing preventive and remedial programs aimed at female offenders.