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The broad relationship between gender and crime is both well-known and fairly-consistent over time, both in the UK and across the world, and can be summarised in terms of three main ideas:

1. Men commit more crimes than women. This, as we’ve noted, is consistent across both time (an historical dimension) and place (a cultural dimension). Men – and young men in particular – appear to have a greater involvement than women in criminal behaviour in all societies and at all times.

2. Men and women commit different types of crime: violent crimes, for example, are much more-likely to be committed by men.

3. While men generally commit a wide array of crimes – from murder, through fraud, to burglary – female criminality is generally limited to a much more limited range.

These observations have led to a number of explanations – biological, psychological and sociological – for both higher male criminality and comparatively lower female criminality and if you want to review some of these, this short film featuring Professor Sandra Walklate (Gendering the Criminal) should prove useful.

And free.

Alternatively, if you prefer your information in Note form, this document covering Feminist and Left Realist approaches to gender and crime might help.

Method and Findings

While there are a wide range of possible explanations for differences in male-female criminality, one general problem is that the majority of these – particularly ones, such as radical feminism or masculinism, that focus on essentialist gender differences – are based on the assumption crime is largely an individual pursuit: offenders, in other words, working alone.

While this is by no-means unreasonable – as Becker and McCorkel (2011) note, “more than 80% of criminal incidents in America involved individual offenders” – it does mean a not-insignificant percentage of crimes were committed by co-offenders.

And a proportion of these involved a mix of males and females working together.  As they note, “33% of men and 38% of women participated in co-offending incidents” at some point.

The question they wanted to test, in this respect, was whether male-female co-offending increased the range of crimes committed by women. If this proved to be the case it would narrow-down the range of possible explanations for female offending by both removing essentialist explanations (the idea, for example, that biological or psychological gender differences explained wider and higher levels of male criminality) and eliminating a range of sociological possibilities – particularly, but not exclusively, those relating to socialisation and social control.

Using data collected by The National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) that included information about “offenses known to the police, arrests made, victims, and victim–offender relationships for serious offenses and information on a larger set of offenses”, Becker and McCorkel explored if and how working with a male co-offender altered female crime participation. In this respect their analysis concluded:

Women are represented across a broader array of crimes when they co-offend with men, compared to when they co-offend with women or work alone”.

Crime Networks

Gender and Criminal Opportunity
Click to downlaod a copy of the resarch

When working alone, “female offenders cluster in a relatively narrow range of gender typical offenses including petty theft, fraud, shoplifting and embezzlement”.

Working with men, however, “broadens women’s criminal involvement” to the extent that working with “one or more male co-offenders increases their chances of involvement in most crime categories”. More specifically, “women are several times more likely to be involved in gender atypical offenses like robbery, drug trafficking, burglary, homicide, gambling, kidnapping, and weapons offenses”.

In other words, women working alone (or co-offending with other women) commit a relatively narrow and limited range of crimes, while co-offending with men means they commit a much wider range.

To explain this difference Becker and McCorkel argue that the majority of crimes in the gender atypical category involve:

  • resources offenders (both male and female) working alone might find difficult to access – tools and raw materials, information, specialized skill sets, and distribution channels”. Burglary, for example, involves “would-be offenders needing information about targets, tools to facilitate entry, a unique skill set for picking locks and evading detection, and the ability to fence stolen goods”.
  • social networks that have, historically, been almost exclusively male (gender segregated): “Men predominate in criminal networks and these networks often operate to exclude or minimize women’s participation in crime”. Gender, in this respect, “operates simultaneously as a resource for crime and co-offending (for men) and obstructs criminal opportunities (for women)”.
  • For Becker and McCorkel, the key variable that explains why men and women commit different types of crime is access to or exclusion from social networks that facilitate or inhibit criminal behaviour. There is, in this respect, nothing about being female that restricts their involvement in a wide range of criminal activities – except for their lack of access to male-dominated social (criminal) networks.

    They develop this idea through the concept of differential opportunity structures, one originally elaborated – albeit in a different context (youth subcultures) and with a very different objective (explaining male criminal involvement) – by Cloward and Ohlin (1960).

    They, you may recall, argued that where there was not equality of opportunity in legitimate job markets it should come as no surprise to find the same in illegitimate or criminal job markets.

    And while they argued these “structural limitations of inequality” produced three kinds of general subcultural response (Criminal, Conflict and Retreatist) among young males, Becker and McCorkel introduce a feminist slant to the concept by focusing on the position of women, relative to men, in illegitimate job markets.

    Just as (working class) women are systematically excluded from the opportunity structures open to men in the legitimate job market the same, they argued, was true in the illegitimate job market – the evidence being the fact that when women have access to criminal networks through the sponsorship of co-offending with men, they are involved in a much wider range of criminal activity. As they conclude:

    Our analysis lends support to the argument that differential opportunity structures explain in part the sex-segregated character of criminal offending, especially for crimes that involve access to network connections, learned skill sets, tools, and other concrete resources”.

    Concluding observations

    It may be useful to note:

    1. The research was done using American data and the extent to which it is applicable to the UK is untested. Having said that, the basic principle of differential opportunity structures relating to both legitimate and illegitimate job markets is transferrable to a UK context. Hypothetically, therefore, one might expect to find a similar outcome.

    2. The research looks at the range of male-female criminal activity, as opposed to the overall extent. Again, it’s possible to hypothesise that in a situation where women were equal to men in the range of opportunities – legitimate and illegitimate – open to them in our society we would expect to see a relative increase in the extent of female crime.

    As Becker and McCorkel conclude: “Feminist pathways research suggests men and women follow different trajectories into crime and that this, in turn, may influence gender differences in the rate of participation and in the kind of participation”. This argument finds some support in areas where women have similar opportunities for crime as men. McMillan (2004), for example, notes that shoplifting – a type of crime that affords equal opportunity of access – is one area in the UK “where women almost equal men in the official crime statistics”.

    Somewhat ironically, therefore, it would seem that a major brake on the range and extent of female participation in crime is the existence of strong and persisting patriarchal structures in any society.

    3. Although they don’t address the idea directly, Becker and McCorkel’s research can be used in the context of social capital to explore how gendered access to different forms of social capital – particularly access to gender-segregated social networks – impacts on their criminal behaviour.

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