Women and White-Collar Crime

Women and White-Collar Crime

By Libby Longino



Despite the truism about crime and payment, white-collar crimes tend to pay pretty well, unless you’re a woman.

By Libby Longino

Getting statistics on any form of crime is notoriously tricky, but researchers from Penn State University made some surprising findings when they analyzed a database created by the federal government’s Corporate Fraud Task Force in the wake of the 2001 Enron scandal. Women face pervasive discrimination in the labor market even when it comes to being a crook. Sociologist Darrell J. Steffensmeier and his team observed of the gender disparity they documented:

Rita Crundwell walking with her attorney to be sentenced for embezzling millions of dollars

Rita Crundwell, former comptroller, embezzled more than $53 million from the town of Dixon, Illinois.

Source Shannon Stapleton/Corbis

“Paralleling gendered labor market segmentation processes that limit and shape women’s entry into economic roles, sex segregation in corporate criminality is pervasive, suggesting only subtle shifts in gender socialization and women’s opportunities for significant white-collar crime.”

Or translated into English: Even in the realm of corporate crime, it’s still largely a man’s world. Check out some of the numbers:

37 – Number of women indicted out of 436 defendants in federal corporate fraud cases between 2002 and 2009 (less than 9 percent).

3 – Number of women identified as “ringleaders,” compared to 156 men. Of these, only one was not married to another ringleader.

56 percent – Percentage of female offenders who did not gain personally from the fraud. Over half of male offenders snagged half a million dollars or more for their illicit actions.

When women did manage to find their way into corporate fraud schemes, the researchers found that they often did so either by being romantically involved with a male member of the scheme or by having a particular skill set or position necessary to the scheme. More than half the women indicted didn’t enter into the schemes entirely voluntarily but were pressured into doing so by higher-ranking colleagues. And even among those women who did participate in fraudulent schemes, the majority profited far less than their male co-conspirators.

Martha Stewart standing behind a U.S. Marshall after being sentenced

Martha Stewart after her sentencing on obstruction of justice charges in 2004

The Penn State team did not attempt to answer questions of how their various explanatory factors worked to limit women’s opportunities for white-collar crime. In part, the dynamic may come down to trust. Sociologists have long been interested in the problem of trust for criminals looking to collaborate: How can a criminal prove her trustworthiness to another in a high-risk situation? (Criminals don’t enjoy the trust-encouraging luxury of legally binding contracts.) While women are increasingly, if slowly, being trusted in the boardroom, gender may still shape perceptions of their trustworthiness in other high-pressure situations, especially those in which more conventional methods of behavior enforcement don’t exist.

Or maybe it’s just that women tend to be more honest and moral than men? Whatever the cause, perhaps this is one glass ceiling that is just fine where it is.