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Updated on August 20, 2012

What role, if any, does gender play in explaining criminal behaviour?

My writing of this hub has in part been inspired by a conversation had with hubber JanieK13. I see this as one of a series - I am charged enough to want to focus upon criminals themselves -  Vanessa George a British nursery Worker was sentenced last week for her heinous crimes against children - I can not conceive of her motivations, she's not alone.

Whilst the facts here are from British crime statistics, I do think that the essay as a whole may apply to an international audience.  I invite any comments/observations.

‘Crime-fighting used to be a male pursuit, but more and more women are playing a prominent part’ this quote taken from the guardian illustrates the growing phenomenon of female criminality.’

This essay will attempt to provide an explanation of what role, if any, gender plays in explaining criminal behaviour, and in doing so will give an overview female criminality. Additionally, there will be a discussion of criminological theories which each put forward explanations for this criminal behaviour. There will be a short overview of ‘female crime’, this will include crime which is disregarded and even unrecorded. To conclude, there will be a summary of findings.

Generally crimes committed by women differ from male criminality. The differences can be seen in the nature of the crime, and its’ consequences, combined with the method, crime weapon, and choice of victim. It is difficult to overlook the fact that crimes committed by women have a more emotional characteristic then those committed by men.

Women are far less likely than men to commit crime. This pattern seems to hold true all over the world. Only 19% of known offenders are women. Nevertheless, women are far more likely to experience domestic violence. Their current or former partner murders two women every week and 44% of violent incidents against women are domestic.

Statistics are compiled annually in England and Wales by the Home Office and offer us the following picture of male and female offending. In 2002; 81 per cent of known offenders were male, and 19 per cent female. Soothill et al (2002) have estimated that 35 per cent of males born in 1958 will have had a criminal conviction by the age of thirty-five; and for women the figure is 9 per cent.

According to the statistics of female offenders in prison, most are in for drug, theft and handling stolen property offences, these account for 60% of known female offenders. 15% of sentenced female prisoners have previously been admitted to a psychiatric hospital and over 40% of sentenced women prisoners have been reported as being dependent on drugs in the year before coming to prison. An estimated 20% of women in prison have spent some time in care.

There has been extensive consideration of the different roles played by men and women in the commission of crime. Many theorists have questioned this. Social, biological, and psychological explanations have been used to develop theories to explain why women commit crime, as well as why they commit less crime than men. The number and complexity of these theories has expanded greatly in recent years as part of the growing body of work on gender both in criminology and in the social sciences more generally.

Until recently, criminal behaviour has mostly been discussed from a male perspective and has been about men, for men and by men. However, there are a range of theories in place which purport to explain why some women commit fewer crimes than males.

Theorists emphasizing the causal role of biological and psychological factors in female crime typically assume that criminal women show masculine biological and psychological orientations. Cesare Lombroso puts forward the explanation that ‘criminals are atavistic throwbacks and that crime results from a reversion to their more primitive state’. He studied the skulls and bones of women criminals and prostitutes and looked at the life histories of both criminal and non-criminal women. Lombroso declared that ‘any physical characteristic that were more common in the criminal group were atavistic’. He viewed women as a’ lower form of life than men.’ His experiences (and prejudices) prompted him to believe that criminals were different physically from normal persons and had physical characteristics of savages and inferior animals. The criminals in whom the atavistic qualities were disclosed were termed ‘Born-criminals’ who committed crimes because of mental conditions like general paralysis, dementia, pellagra, alcoholism, epilepsy, idiocy, or hysteria.. He went on further to discuss how women are better able to adapt to unappealing environment than men, therefore, they turn to prostitution as an alternative to crime. Lombroso and Ferrerero penned the book ‘The Female Offender’ which ‘profiled’ the female offended and included deceitfulness, cunning, spite, amongst others which they claim were not apparent among males. This indicates that criminal women were genetically more male than non-criminal females, and as such biologically abnormal. One of the many critics of Lombroso Gabriel Tarde, said that crime being social in origin is of changing nature and as it depends upon social definitions it cannot be explained with reference to atavism. Moreover, according to Tarde, Lombroso’s theory did not explain the lower rate of criminality among women having the same stigmata.

Other theorists such as WI Thomas accepted Lombroso’s account of inferiority and passivity of women, however he did not agree on the theory that criminal women are more like men. In his book, ‘The Unadjusted Girl’ blames female crime on the traditional constraints placed upon them. Resulting from this women have the desire for recognition, and in order to obtain this many females get involved in illegal activities. He discusses that everyone has four main duties in life, desire for new experiences, security, and response, and recognition. Thomas considered that women maintain there virtue until marriage, but these women used there sexuality to obtain whatever they want. Women were seen having feeling confined under monogamy, and having a lot sexual energy, this was released in criminal acts.

Given that most crime committed by women is economic or responses to violence on them you certainly cannot call such crimes as a cry for recognition

Sigmund Freud offered an explanation of female crime which stated women are universally not able to fully resolve the Oedipus complex. They have a great deal of need for the approval of men, so as a rule they do not risk upsetting them by committing crimes. The exceptional female who does offend is seen as suffering from extreme penis envy and, in a desire to be a man, takes an aggressive, non-conforming attitude that may result in criminal behaviour.

Freud considers that all individuals are born with the potential to be criminal in that the basic human instincts will lead to anti social behaviour. He analysed boys and girls and concluded that due to genetic differences, women are more passive than men. Freud agreed with Lombroso in that female criminality rejects passivity and tries very hard to be like men. Lombroso based his explanation on constitutional affairs whereas Freud acknowledged the possible effects of inherited traits possibly being a factor.

Otto Pollak in his landmark book ‘The Criminality of Women’ argues that the types of crimes women commit include shoplifting, domestic thefts, theft by prostitutes, abortions and perjury. He made the point that these crimes are under-represented in crime statistics for a variety of reasons; easy concealment, underreporting, embarrassment on the part of male victims, and male chivalry in the justice system, he provides examples of lower visibility and detection of female crime to feminine cunning and deceit. The willingness to excuse or impose a light punishment on female offenders was explained away to male chivalry.

Pollak used as illustration women’s sexual pleasures for how women can easily fake things. Lombroso and Ferrero accepted that many of Pollak’s points might be valid. However, Katharina Dalton found that Pollak put forward an idea but did not provide any evidence. In her research, she found that almost 60% of imprisoned women in her sample had committed their crimes during menstruation period. She argued that because of this direct link, courts have been prepared to reduce sentences.

Some criminologists argue that women seldom have the opportunity to be involved in organised and corporate crime of which many men are guilty but not convicted. In terms of the ratio of conviction between females and males, where women have similar opportunities for criminal behaviour in relation to males, their respective patterns of crimes appear to be broadly similar. However, while, in theory, women have similar opportunities as men to commit crime these may be limited by other factors such as employment, as fewer women than men work, less opportunity exists. Women are also more likely than men to have primary responsibility for are child-care, which restricts opportunities for various types of criminal behaviour. It is perhaps true that female crime can often explain as women’s unusual response to lack of opportunity and school failure. It is a desperate attempt to escape from poverty rather than, as in the case of many men, an aggressive response to their social situation.

Courts may deal more leniently with females. However, it appears that when women commit crimes that go against male stereotypes of femininity, women tend to be more harshly punished than men are. This can be seen with crimes involving violence.

Renowned feminist Freda Adler has suggested that the greater involvement of crime is a direct result of the female emancipation. Her book ‘Sisters In Crime’, suggests that ‘differences in rates of male and female crime are attributed to the different roles each sex had to play’. Due to breakdowns in these distinctions, women have now started to act like men, hence crimes associated with men, are now being committed by women. Women have gained greater opportunities to commit crime by entering the workplace. This can be explain why there is an increase in crimes such a fraud. If Alder’s views are valid the female crime rate should have risen since the 1960s when female movement groups pressured females to earn a living and be independent.

Many criticisms arise from this explanation of crime. One argument put forward, is that relying on criminal statistics during a period of women’s liberation is inadequate due to the unreliability of statistics. Smart found that if women have greater opportunities to offend in the workplace, one would expect a larger increase in female property crime than violent crime. However, she finds this is not the case. It is therefore very difficult to make a claim that increases in employment prospects for women correlates to a greater involvement of crime.

Adler's theory has invited much criticism from other feminist writers such as Brown. She describes it as an 'embarrassment to feminism' and argues instead that feminism has made female crime more visible through increased reporting, policing and sentencing of female offenders. She mentions that the degree of sentencing (more severe penalties) would be a more acceptable index of increases in offences among women rather than statistical measures as adopted by Adler. Carol Smart argues that Adler's theory is based on 'statistical illusions caused by a smallness of the base'. Carlen argues that Adler's 'new female criminal' is cast as the 'biological female' who is essentially masculine. The 'new female' criminal turns out to be the 'old maladjusted masculinise female' of traditional criminology, rejecting her proper feminine role. Adler's 'Sisters In Crime' appears to work within the frameworks of traditional criminology rather than a feminist one.

Wicked and depravity don't even come close to describing the despicable crimes
Wicked and depravity don't even come close to describing the despicable crimes


Scientists have suggested that the brain differences between male and female is an essential reason why women are more likely to stay out of harm’s way. Current research has demonstrated that females, on average, have a larger deep limbic system than males. Due to this, women are more in touch with their feelings; they have an increased ability to bond and are connected to others.


A rather different approach to the issue of gender and crime is society’s concept of masculinity. This consequently leads to criminal behaviour in boys and men. To be masculine means to assert authority and control over others, to be individualistic, aggressive and independent.


Cain argues feminist criminology must consider what it was in the social construction of maleness that was so criminogenic. Connell looked at the key concepts of patriarchy, domination, oppression and exploitation through which men are deemed more powerful than women did. He suggests that masculinity is negotiated in many contexts; however many academics argue that this concept is very vague.

Gender has the greatest impact on recorded patterns of offending. Most notably women in prison are relatively small, however now it can be argued these are on the up in the latest figure in the press. (Put that in)


It has been argued by Gelsthorpe that the treatment of women and men by the courts more often than not support leniency towards women which is unrelated to offences seriousness. Allen’s study is exceptional in suggesting that violent women offenders received more sympathetic sentences and justice than men did.


In addition to this, women’s prison population is now a vitally important issue as it is on the increase. ‘Crime-fighting used to be a male pursuit, but more and more women are playing a prominent part’ this quote taken from the guardian indicates the increase of female crime’.


The relationship between gender differences, and criminal behaviour is complex and varied, there are no simple answers. A number of factors must be taken into account, and the environmental influences and cultural traditions can be seen as the most important ones.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I believe that they are just as likely as men to commit crime. The difference is the crime they commit. Do men or women lie more? That very question makes you realize that you can not answer it because its probably tied. The willingness to lie is actually the first step towards crime. Once again the difference is the crime. More shoplifters are women but the surprise is that more women shop. The number of women playing a support role while some man does the crime is seldom figured in. When it comes to violent crime then men finally take over statistics. Women have a funny way of justifying so how many women talk their way out of trouble compared to men?

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      this was so well written and extremely easy to follow, could I possibly get your references?

    • profile image

      ngerajack kenya 

      5 years ago

      Criminal justice system should punish the offenders equally regardless the gender

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      Interesting analysis on this topic. I have read that women do tend to commit crime less often than men. In the past few years, it seems as if the number of women are committing crime more often than before. Wonder how the brain comes into play on this. Could it be the lack of good health choices? Great hub and very informative.

    • JanTutor profile imageAUTHOR

      Jan Thompson 

      6 years ago from London, England

      McLaren I'm not sure what to say but it's very true that there is inequality in the way criminals are dealt with - though not always in favour of women

    • JanTutor profile imageAUTHOR

      Jan Thompson 

      6 years ago from London, England

      Hi Parwinder, It's a hugely interesting area of criminology - please publish your findings

    • JanTutor profile imageAUTHOR

      Jan Thompson 

      6 years ago from London, England

      Hi Cameron - thought-provoking stuff

    • McLaren 83 profile image

      McLaren 83 

      8 years ago from Planet Earth

      Womens crime is only different because we look upon it differently. Overall, women commit as many crimes as men do and are often allowed off with it. If i had my way i would punish women harder for crime and attempt to help and rehabilitate men.

      Women must be punished!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I;m working on Women Crime in Punjab. Things are surprizing.Crime on women by men, crime on women by women and crime on women by both zenders tells different stories difficult to generalise.The crimes committed by women are yet to be examined.


    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I'm a woman and I've been in a deal of trouble. My very first crime was arson when I was 14 years old and my main goal was to act like a "badass" infront of my friend. The second thing I did was when I was 15 and that was shoplifting, and that was once again to show off. I shoplifted again on my own because I was greedy and didn't want to pay for a head band. The third thing I did was "disorderly conduct" I started the whole thing. I told continuely would call this girl a derogatory name when I would see her at school in the hallways..not because I felt that way, but because I wanted to make a name for myself (appear tough), finally led to a fight one day. After that it was all weed related arrest, not really trying to prove anything, just get high. Although, my crowd changed to men as soon as I started smoking, and it also led to aiding and assisting drugs. I must admit, there is something about the acceptance of a woman into a man's organized crime. I have a yearning to be accepted, it makes me feel important because it's dangerous. I don't want to feel that way, but honestly I feel alive when a man accepts me into their circle and lets me in on secrets, and asks me to be a part of something. Of course I'll decline, but just to have that recognition, it's a much different type of feeling than being hired for a regular job. Black market has always appealed to me.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Crime is directly related to poverty in stats. A woman who steals some food for her kids or steals to keep the power connected should be looked at differently.

      Drug addiction is rife and the international US banks have been using drug money to keep their casino afloat.

      Time to look at the powerful and how they are deliberately promoting drug abuse and therefore crime. Those powerful interests want crime as a means to convinc us we need the protection of a police state. Lower benefits and no jobs will deepen the cycle and force us further along the line to facism which is being socially engineered as we speak.

    • profile image

      Loosie loo 

      9 years ago

      What an inspirational piece of writing, really well constructed and flowed beautifully. This has really inspired me to write my dissertation on the subject of female offending and feminism. I am very interested in researching this further. Could I ask you where you got your references from? Thank you.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Nice piece of writing. Definitely looking out for more in the series. I'm glad janie inspired you. Well done jan tutor you CAN write!

    • janiek13 profile image

      Mary Krenz 

      9 years ago from Florida's Space Coast

      H. P. has a lovely way of putting it.

    • JanTutor profile imageAUTHOR

      Jan Thompson 

      9 years ago from London, England

      JanieK the point you make about vicious adolescent girls is a massive cause of concern here in the UK. In recent years the emergence of a number of malicious and violent girl gangs has been alarming. They have factored in a number of urban teen-on-teen homicides.

      WHY? Surely they should be concerning themselves with careers, fashion, music, cosmetics, boyfriend's and the like

      I sincerely hope that this phenomena is transient but somehow I doubt it.

      H P Roychoudhury, I absolutely love the way you way the flag for feminity. Perhaps I wrong but it's rare to hear men compliment women in such 'poetic' terms.

      In many ways I agree with you and JanieK about treating criminals without gender discrimination, but I can't help shedding a tear for the children who are often left behind; the hidden victims.

    • H P Roychoudhury profile image

      H P Roychoudhury 

      9 years ago from Guwahati, India

      Yes, crime is crime. The punishment should not be differentiated for the act of crime on the basis of gender. I completely agree with the comment of Janiek that Women are motivated by greed, while men are motivated by sex in most of the cases. But it must be said that the percentage of causing crime by women is significantly less than men. Probably it was the creation of god that all women by nature are mild, sober, soft and lovely so as to be loved by men in general with little exception. However everybody may not agree but it is my personal view. Thanks.

    • janiek13 profile image

      Mary Krenz 

      9 years ago from Florida's Space Coast

      Women that commit crimes should be subject to the same penalties as men. Women can be just as cruel and vicious. When I worked with adolescents, the girls were often more trouble than the males. Most women that serial offend are motivated by greed, men are more often sexually motivated.

      Very well written and organized. Good job!


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