A Failure of Feminism: Women Are Being Systematically Excluded From White-Collar Crime

Martha Stewart, one of the few high-profile female executives to be implicated in a white-collar crime, leaves the federal courthouse on March 17, 2005 in New York City. Stewart appeared in federal appeals court to argue that she was unfairly convicted on charges of lying about a stock sale.

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Even after all the gains they’ve made in recent decades, women still have a tough time climbing the corporate ladder. An April New York Times blog post reported that women “make up only 16 percent of directors at Fortune 500 companies, 4 percent of chief executives at Standard & Poor’s 500 companies and 10 percent of chief financial officers at S.& P. 500 companies.”

I guess it’s not a surprise, then, to learn that women also have trouble climbing the corporate crime ladder. A new study in the American Sociological Review analyzed 83 white-collar corporate crime cases from 2002 to 2009, and found that female executives rarely participate and even more rarely take leadership roles in corporate fraud schemes.

As Rich Morin at Pew’s Fact Tank blog writes, female white-collar criminals “typically hold inferior positions to men in the criminal conspiracies in which they are engaged, rarely lead a fraud ring and make significantly less money for their dirty deeds than their male accomplices.” When they are apprehended, female fraudsters routinely explain that they were instructed or persuaded to participate by male superiors. Morin also notes that while 156 male defendants were identified as “ringleaders” of their respective conspiracies, only 3 women earned that designation—and two of them were married to men who were also considered ringleaders in the scheme.

What can we conclude from this? Obviously, one big reason for the disparity is that there are fewer women than men in the sorts of higher-level positions that present opportunities to commit financial fraud. But the researchers suggest the results can’t simply be explained away by a lack of opportunity. They mention that research has found women to be more risk-averse than men, and suggest that the rate of criminal behavior has something to do with gender norms: 

The separation between what is feminine and what is criminal is sharp, whereas the dividing line between what is masculine and what is illegal is often thin. Although male sex role norms do not prescribe crime, risk-taking and defying social convention are qualities more admired in men than in women.

So the internalized, perhaps subconscious notion that women aren’t supposed to be criminals might serve to prevent women from getting involved in white-collar crime. But the notion also stops male conspirators from recruiting women into their schemes, under the belief that women lack the nerve to participate and succeed.

Of course, there’s another possible conclusion. The study only looked at white-collar criminals who have been caught. Maybe it’s just that women are better at getting away with it.