Yes, Women Are Underrepresented in White-Collar Crime, but for How Long?

What Women Really Think
Aug. 26 2013 5:17 PM

Yes, Women Are Underrepresented in White-Collar Crime, but for How Long?

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Martha Stewart on her first day back to work after her incarceration in 2005

Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

When scandals happen we often wonder why powerful women so rarely get involved in them. Why is there no Carla Danger? No elite escort service with a roster of female senators? Why, as International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde mused famously and Arianna Huffington repeats often, was there no Lehman Sisters bringing down Wall Street? Is it because women are more risk-averse? Less drunk off their own power? Is it because men get shiftier in their ethical reasoning if they feel their manhood is on the line, as a recent set of sociological studies showed? Or because most women, whether they know it or not, have the Glinda the Good Witch gene, and are wired to inspire the powerful men around them to commit great acts of philanthropy?

Guesses about the scandal disparity often revert to the expected gender explanations: Women are nicer, more ethical, too empathetic to do anyone any harm, while testosterone surges lead men to think they are invincible. But a new set of studies suggests that the reason women don’t commit high-level white-collar crimes isn't because they don’t have it in them. It's because white collar crime, like so many other professions, has a glass ceiling.

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The study in the American Sociological Review (as Justin Peters noted on Slate’s Crime blog) looked at 83 corporate frauds and found that only 9 percent of offenders were women. But as our own Jessica Grose pointed out in Business Week, the picture for lesser crimes is different. A 2012 study of 1,400 global fraud cases found that when it comes to lower-level corporate crimes, women make up 45 percent of culprits.

This summer, for example, a woman was accused of stealing $17,000 by forging her company president’s signature on checks; the leader of a health-care clinic was sentenced to 47 months in prison for stealing $7 million from her corporation; and three female business owners were charged with defrauding Medicaid out of $27,000 by billing for services never performed. And that was just in Florida.

This finding suggests a much more fluid picture of gender benevolence. As women slowly gain power, they slowly start to behave like the powerful, meaning they become more corruptible. In white-collar crime, just as in white-collar jobs, they just haven’t reached the top yet. But once they do, there might very well be some Michelle Milken dazzling us with pretty new junk bonds.

A similar picture could be true with sex scandals. The big news in infidelity research lately is that younger women are catching up to men. About 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women under 35 say they have been unfaithful. Not many prominent, powerful women have been caught cheating, but this may not be because women are too nice to cheat, but because women are still so new to those positions, so they don’t dare to mess up—not yet. As soon as it becomes routine to see women in power, powerful women might behave just like every other Anthony, Mark, and Eliot. 

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.