If you want to know about women and white-collar crime, consult Professor Mary Dodge, PhD—who literally wrote the book on the subject.
Dodge published her book, Women and White Collar Crime, in 2008, at a time when not much scholarly attention was devoted to women who commit financial and opportunity-based crimes. With more than 20 years teaching in CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs, Dodge has spent her career researching the intersections of women and criminal justice. “The one thing we know is that men commit more crime than women,” Dodge said. “The obvious question is why.”
Dodge was influenced in part by Professor Kathleen Daly of Griffith University, who coined the term pink collar crime in a 1989 article published in the academic journal, Criminology. “It was one of the first qualitative articles about women who commit white-collar crime,” Dodge said. “The label is, in my opinion, demeaning and stereotypes women who commit financial crime.”
What Exactly Is White-Collar Crime?
One of the reasons research in the area is difficult is that there is no clear definition of white collar crime. Like other researchers in the field of criminal justice, Dodge defines it in terms of the type of offender: “White collar crime is committed by an offender who is in a position of power and authority and who, through their occupation, commits crime.” The FBI definition is based on the offenses, which includes corporate fraud, mortgage fraud, identity theft, money laundering, securities and commodities fraud, investment fraud, embezzlement, and other similar crimes “which are not dependent upon the application or threat of physical force or violence.”
Before Dodge’s book, perspectives about female criminals and their motivations were often based on gender stereotypes. For example, there were researchers who theorized that women committed less crime because they were socialized in a different way—“in a way that they’re not going to commit crime,” Dodge said. “Scholars continue to debate whether women are more ethical and less prone to engage in illegal or immoral behavior.”
Some scholars, including Dorothy Zeitz, who studied convicted female embezzlers in 1981, concluded that women committed white collar crime in order to help partners or children. “I think you would get really different results now,” Dodge said. “Like men, many women commit financial fraud to buy luxury items, support gambling habits, and to achieve power and status.”
Martha Stewart, interior designer and author, and Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of health technology start-up Theranos, are two recent examples of high-powered women charged with white-collar crime. “There are a whole host of women in positions of power who have acted badly,” Dodge said.
The Glass Ceiling in Pink-Collar Crime
In her book and in scholarly articles that have followed, Dodge proposed an alternative hypothesis—that women do not commit more white-collar crime because they are excluded from high-powered positions within corporations. “Consider women and people of color and think about the lack of opportunity they have had to commit white-collar crime,” Dodge said. “I take an opportunity perspective. If we put women and people of color in as CEOs and board members, what might happen?”
In 2020, the journal Criminal Justice Studies published a special issue focused on gender and white-collar crime. The introduction reminds readers that, “as Mary Dodge has noted, there remain important limits on female participation in the uppermost positions of corporate life that preclude them from the most serious white-collar criminal involvement.” In other words, there is a glass ceiling in pink- and white-collar crime.
If given the opportunity, women might make excellent white-collar criminals. As it stands, although women commit less crime than men, they commit the majority of embezzlement crimes. “They’re doing that as a result of their mid-level occupations,” Dodge explained. “They’re in a position of trust—not necessarily power.”
The proverbial glass ceiling extends to the earnings of female white-collar criminals. The amount of money they steal is significantly less than the amount male embezzlers steal. According to pinkcollarcrime.com, women steal “about .43 – .50 on the dollar” when compared to men. Not only that, but women are more often the victims of white-collar crime. “In the last few years I’ve focused on women as victims of white-collar crime,” Dodge said. “There is a sense in the academic literature that women compared to men are victimized at higher rates.”
As it turns out, white-collar crime may be an apt metaphor for how women continue to be negatively affected by their gender. “Women don’t have as much opportunity to commit white-collar crime; when they do commit white-collar crime, it’s labeled pink-collar crime; and women are more often the victims of white-collar crime,” Dodge said. “It’s a complicated trifecta.”