In 1975, American criminologist Freda Adler issued a dire prophecy on the “darker side” of gender equality that shocked feminist and criminological academics alike.
“In the same way that women are demanding equal opportunity in the fields of legitimate endeavour, a similar number of determined women are forcing their way into the world of major crimes,” she wrote in her landmark book, Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal.
Adler’s fears were largely unfounded — women still commit violent crime at only a fraction the rate of men — but some criminologists have noted a narrowing in the gap between the proportion of crimes committed by women and those committed by men.
One hypothesis gaining ground among some European criminologists suggests that gender equality does impact crime — but inversely to Adler’s hypothesis. The narrowing crime gap might mean gender equality isn’t helping women into crime, but instead enticing men away from offending. So the question is: could feminism be making the world safer?
The gender crime gap
It is one of few undisputed facts of criminology that men commit violent crime at significantly higher rates than women across the world. From Sweden to the US, men are responsible for some 90% of homicides.
The violent crime gender gap “seems to be something that’s really resistant to change,” said Jukka Savolainen, Director of National Archive of Criminal Justice Data in Michigan. “Men are more prone to use direct physical means of aggression, while females are reluctant to do that.”
Other research suggests that when women do turn to serious violence, it is often as a response to an urgent threat of male aggression.
It is also firmly established that the Western world has experienced a substantial and sustained decrease in crimes in the last three decades, known as the “crime drop”. But in some countries — and for some crimes — the conviction rate for women has increased.
The problem, said Felipe Estrada, professor of criminology at Stockholm University, “is knowing whether we are seeing something connected to behaviour, or the criminal justice system’s reaction.”
In other words, criminologists remain uncertain whether increased convictions are due to women committing more crimes, or simply a higher detection and prosecution rate for those crimes. Estrada’s research suggests the latter.
“Whatever is being done right in the case of boys is not having an impact on girls”
But according to Estrada, the focus on increasing conviction rates for women obscures a much more significant trend in violent offending: the steep decline in male convictions.
“The main explanation for why we have a decreasing gender gap is that the criminal convictions among men are decreasing very sharply in the last three decades,” said Estrada. “The crime drop is mostly driven by young men who are less criminal than they were in the past.”
According to Jukka Savolainen, director of the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data in Michigan, that’s not entirely surprising. “If we see a drop-off in serious crimes, then that has to come from men, because they are responsible for around 90% of homicides.”
But according to some researchers, the impact of gender on crime trends is understudied.
Raquel Bartolome and Esther Fernandez Molina, co-authors of a recent European Journal of Criminology paper on the Spanish crime drop, said: “The fact that in various countries the crime rate has fallen among boys leads it to be thought that changes in the way they regard masculinity and traditional social roles may have an important role.”
Estrada too considers shifting norms a valuable and understudied area of enquiry. In a 2016 British Journal of Criminology paper, he concluded: “to the extent that increased gender equality may have affected the difference between men’s and women’s propensity for crime, its effect may primarily be due to having produced changes in the type of masculinity that encourages criminality.”
For the moment, those ideas remain hypotheses — and disputed by Savolainen, among others.
But changes in social norms around gender and crime open up promising areas of enquiry for researchers, and important questions for policymakers.
According to Bartolome and Fernandez-Molina, policymakers must become more sensitive to the gendered dynamics of offending.
“If, indeed, crime is gendered, this should be taken into account when designing educational interventions for juvenile offenders in order to encourage boys to express their identity in a way that does not cause harm to society or to themselves,” they said.
And work with women, they argue, needs to be rethought.
“Men are more prone to use direct physical means of aggression”
“Whatever is being done right in the case of boys (which has generated the crime drop) is not having an impact on girls,” they said.
Gender-responsive approaches to criminal justice are taking root: new projects to make prisons more sensitive to gendered trauma are already underway in the UK.
But to understand the crime drop — and to sustain the gains — much more research will be required.
“It’s an exciting and novel hypothesis,” said Bartolome and Fernandez-Molina, “but the evidence remains scant. Policymakers should promote more research to delve deeper into the subject.” — Edward Siddons
(Picture credit: Flickr/VinceFL)