Criminology Women and White-Collar Crime
Mary Dodge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0283


The inclusion of gender in the field of white-collar crime represents a relatively new and challenging area of study and research. The existing information on this topic is scarce, though research is emerging at a steady pace on women who commit offenses and on victimology. Several reasons explain the lack of attention on women who commit white-collar crime and patterns of victimization. First, historical research on people who commit offenses focused on men because they committed the highest number of crimes. Illegal activities committed by women were viewed as aberrations that rarely occurred. Initial empirical studies and theories in criminology were developed based on young male delinquents who were engaged in the majority of offenses and white-collar crimes remained anonymous deeds that, historically, received little recognition. The trend to study males holds true, despite the rising number of females who have become involved in the criminal justice system. Young boys and men continue to outpace women on almost all criminal offenses. Second, women were engaged in domestic duties that hindered their participation in the workforce. As a consequence of their status as wives, mothers, and homemakers the crimes women committed were related to prostitution, shoplifting, welfare fraud, and embezzlement. Women had few opportunities to commit corporate or occupational white-collar crime. Though women fought to gain equal rights, particularly in the workplace, high-level positions in corporations were rare and the glass ceiling prevented advancement in many companies. Third, until the mid-1970s few feminist scholars were active in the fields of criminology and criminal justice, which stunted growth in the area. Finally, the debates over definitional issues and lack of access to large data sources on white-collar crime stymied research efforts. The problematic nature of deciding what actions constitute white-collar crime emerged almost immediately after Edwin Sutherland’s 1939 presidential address at the American Society of Sociology (later renamed the American Sociological Association). Sutherland argued that a huge portion of crime committed by respectable businessmen in positions of power was being ignored, despite the serious harm caused by their actions. The myopic attention on street-level crime resulted in societal, scholarly, and journalistic failures to acknowledge suite-level offenses and victims. While scholarly efforts to explore white-collar crime grew, the idea that women might be involved failed to emerge until 1975. Incidents of women committing white-collar crime were so rare that fraudulent schemes were the exception to the rule. Scholars noted that low-level white-collar offenses by women, such as embezzlement, may be worth investigating, though many people believed these actions represented pink-collar crimes. The lack of opportunity in male dominated corporate and professional realms resulted in few women who participated in, for example, insider trading, Ponzi schemes, or price-fixing. A few female scholars, however, recognized that the issue was not about gender and the ability to commit white-collar crime, but instead depended on opportunity.

Historical Perspectives

Adler 1975 and Simon 1975 first introduced the idea that women may be involved in white-collar crime. Previously, women who committed crime were ignored or viewed as deviant, male-like, and manipulative, as seen in Lombroso and Ferrero 1915 and Pollak 1950. Serious examinations and research on gender and crime began to evolve in the 1960s. Adler’s work was published during the tumultuous period when American women were fighting for equal rights and often is referred to as the liberation hypothesis. In other words, when women reached equality with men the amount of crime for the former would increase according to opportunity. The backlash from feminists on Adler’s work was notable. Adler, however, wrote that criminal activities involved human behavior and was unrelated to gender. Her book suggested that higher crime rates by men were a result of opportunity rather than any inherent biological, psychological, or cultural differences attributed to sex or gender. Similarly, Simon’s book argued that as women moved from the domestic sphere to the public milieu opportunities to commit all types of crime would increase. Gender varieties of crime for women, such as insider trading or price-fixing, were low as long as men continued to control corporate and professional jobs. Adler and Simon’s research studies revealed higher arrest patterns for elite crimes committed by women, however, Simon’s research raised questions and prompted debate on whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Report accurately reflected white-collar offenses. The Uniform Crime Report and the National Incident-Based Reporting System database are controversial. They are faulted, for example, for lacking specific categories that accurately reflect occupational and corporate crime. In fact, many scholars argue that reported arrests are more likely to reflect lower level crimes among women such as check kiting, credit card fraud, or shoplifting. Steffensmeier, et al. 1989 discovered that gender equality and economic marginalization failed to explain female offending across sixty-nine countries. According to these researchers, arrest data indicated that social control and consumer-crime opportunity were better theoretical explanations. Until the 1990s, the academic community largely ignored the speculations that women might engage in white-collar crime, though the debates over if and how women committed occupation or corporate crime continued. Steffensmeier, et al. 2015 is a seminal article that addresses the controversy on the involvement of women in white-collar crime, ultimately finding that a higher number of females compared to men were involved in non-occupational offending that included shoplifting, writing bad checks, and defrauding welfare or government benefits. Additionally, the majority of arrests showed that the offenses were minor with little financial profit. The controversy over data and theoretical perspectives focused primarily on connections of motivation and offending to opportunity theory or gendered focal concerns.

  • Adler, Freda. 1975. Sisters in crime: The rise of the new female criminal. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    This book is based on qualitative data and represents one of the first scholarly attempts to take a position on women and crime. The book was widely popular in the media and Adler solidified her position as a leading female criminologist. Despite the backlash and critiques of the liberation hypothesis and the mistaken takeaway that women would adopt masculine qualities in the workplace, Adler’s work inspired future generations of feminist scholars. Adler was one of the first academics to predict a rise in women and white-collar crime.

  • Lombroso, Cesare, and William Ferrero. 1915. The female offender. New York: D. Appleton.

    Lombroso and Ferrero’s book on women who commit offenses set the stage for several generations of stereotypes about women who committed crime. These women were described as lacking moral refinement and biologically more masculine. Female criminal behavior was described as abnormal and inherently evil.

  • Pollak, Otto. 1950. The criminality of women. New York: A. S. Barnes.

    Like Lombroso, Pollak’s book relied on stereotypes that labeled women who commit offenses as deceitful and vengeful operating in secret or “masked” criminality. Pollak noted that time periods before, during, and following menstruation resulted in increased patterns of criminality. Menopause also was seen as a precursor to criminal activity.

  • Simon, Rita James. 1975. Women and crime. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

    Simon’s book is the first quantitative attempt to explore the nature of women and crime. In addition to other types of offenses, she showed increasing criminal patterns. Additionally, she predicted an increase in the number of women who would commit white-collar crime as opportunities became available.

  • Steffensmeier, Darrell, Emilie Allan, and Cathy Streifel. 1989. Development and female crime: A cross-national test of alternative explanations. Social Forces 68:262–283.

    DOI: 10.2307/2579228

    This empirical article employed INTERPOL data from sixty-nine countries to explore four hypotheses on the relationship between arrests and female offending. The results show that female inequality and economic marginalization are overly simplistic and poor predictors of arrest. The authors found support for the hypotheses that women engaged in consumer crimes and experienced higher levels of formal social control. Compared to previous research, this well-designed study provided international details to more fully explain female offending.

  • Steffensmeier, Darrell, Casey T. Harris, and Noah Painter-Davis. 2015. Gender and arrests for larceny, fraud, forgery, and embezzlement: Conventional or occupational property crime offenders? Journal of Criminal Justice 43:205–217.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2015.03.004

    This empirical work offers in-depth comparisons of male and female involvement in four offense categories: larceny, fraud, forgery, and embezzlement (LFFE). The research uses offense and incident data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System and New York Crime Reporting Program in order to avoid the limitations of the Uniform Crime Report data and add substantive empirical findings to the debate on gender and white-collar crime. The researchers discovered that, especially in the case of females, the crimes are unrelated to jobs and that almost half of the offenses for women were shoplifting and bad checks.

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