When a woman commits a serious crime (especially a violent one) it usually attracts a lot of attention from the media and public. A female ‘serial killer’, for example, may not match our expectations of who might be capable of such acts… but are our expectations, in fact, influenced by the known crime statistics? Could the statistics be influenced by perceptions of male and female offenders?

There is one crime fact that most people agree on: most of it is committed by men. This is called the ‘gender gap’. But when we talk about gender and crime, we mean more than just simply comparing crime stats for each sex. The term gender more broadly refers to how men and women interact with society.  It might be important to consider:

  • Are women ‘naturally’ less criminal than men?
  • Are the courts more lenient or tougher on women than on men?
  • Why aren’t male offenders more like female offenders?

The basics

So do women commit less crime than men? Do women commit different crimes than men?

  • In 2005, there were 30.7 million females compared with 29.5 million males in the UK population.
  • Yet male offenders in England and Wales outnumber female offenders by more than four to one.
  • Figures show more women are locked up in England and Wales than in any EEA nation other than Ukraine and Spain.
  • In 2017, only 19% of known offenders were women.

Inside information

The statistics tell us that women mostly commit low-level, non-violent offences and are usually not a risk to public safety.

What types of crime do women usually commit?

Feminist theories on crime take into account the gender issues of society when considering offending behaviour. For example, issues might include: financial inequality between men and women, the fact that many women are the primary caregivers to their children, or the difference in occupations that many men and women hold. All of this is therefore related to the types of crime women commit, and the stereotypes we have of both female and male offenders.

  • Of the population born in 1953, 34% of men but only 8% of women had a conviction for a serious offence by the age of 40.
  • The single most common offence for which women are imprisoned is shoplifting (a type of retail theft).
  • A significantly large group of the female prison population are held for drug offences, followed by those held for theft and fraud.
  • Of those found guilty or cautioned for sexual offences, 98% were male.
  • Women commit less ‘white collar’ crime than men. This is at least partly because women are less represented in the top business jobs: Women’s average representation in the business sector in 2005 was only 12%.


What about prostitution?

  • In prostitution, the female to male ratio is estimated at four to one.
  • In one survey, 74% of women involved in prostitution said poverty, the need to pay household expenses and support their children, were the reasons for entering such work.
  • The Government shows that in 2017, there were 2,678 convictions for soliciting in comparison to only 933 convictions for kerb crawling. This means that those working in prostitution (generally women) were more often punished than their customers (generally men).

Women in prison

Do women belong in prison? Since female offenders usually commit non-violent crimes, some prison reformers suggest that locking women up doesn’t seem to help “protect the public” as the government claims. Also, since many women in prison are mothers, separating them from their family may greatly harm the well-being of their children.

Is this helpful in our society? With all the recent talk of overcrowded prisons, it might be important to question the role of imprisoning women and consider alternatives to custody.

  • There are 17 women’s prisons in England.
  • There are currently around 4,500 women in prisons in England and Wales, which means women make up almost six per cent of the total prison population. This is above the average level world-wide, which is 4.3%.
  • Between 1995 and 2005, the imprisonment rate for women in England and Wales increased by 175% (compare this to only an 85% increase for men).
  • Less than half of the women remanded into custody go on to receive a prison sentence. This means that many are locked up, possibly separated from children, only because they are awaiting trial or sentencing.
  • Over a third of all adult women in prisons have no previous convictions – more than double the figure for men.
  • In facing current prison overcrowding, some women’s prisons are changing into male establishments, such as HMP Brockhill and HMP Bullwood Hall. This means even fewer prisons dedicated to housing women.
  • Since there are fewer prisons for women than for men, women are held further (sometimes very far such as 100 miles away) from their homes and families.

Mothers in prison

  • 66% of women prisoners are mothers and each year it is estimated that more than 17,700 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment.
  • There are currently 84 places in the seven mother and baby units in prisons. These are reserved for mothers who have children under the age of 18 months. In 2004, 114 women gave birth while serving a prison sentence.
  • Also in 2004, the average distance that female prisoners were held from their home was 62 miles and nearly a quarter of women were held more than 100 miles away. This is especially damaging to maintaining relationships with families and children, particularly when considering the financial costs of travel for those with low incomes.
  • Only half of women who had lived, or were in contact with their children prior to imprisonment, had received a visit from them since going to prison.

Does imprisoning women work?

Imprisonment is meant to punish an offender for their crime, protect the public and hopefully stop re-offending through rehabilitation. But what are the real effects of prison on many women?

  • 65% of women released from prison in 2017 were reconvicted within two years of release.
  • Many women lose their homes because of imprisonment. Facing homelessness when released only makes re-offending more likely, particularly for women caring for children.

Suicide and self-harm in prison

Although many women may be in prison only for minor offences, the effects of custody, separation from their family, and mental health problems can lead to self-inflicted harm or even death.

  • While women make up just 6% of the prison population they accounted for 4,344 self harm incidents in 2014: nearly half of all reported self-harm incidents in that year. This meant that 30% of the female prison population had harmed themselves (compared to 6% of men). Time spent in custody for women with mental health problems often leads to further deterioration of their well-being.
  • Rates of suicide among women in prison are alarmingly high. In 2014, 14 women committed suicide in prison, and in 2004, 16 women did so (including 3 on remand).
  • The most recent statistics for 2005 show that 4 female prisoners committed suicide. This is a lower number, yet prison overcrowding is expected to make suicide and incidences of self-harm more likely.

Why do women commit crimes?

The offending behaviour of many women may be influenced by financial problems, poor educational and employment opportunities, drug dependency, mental health problems, victimisation or any combination of these.

  • A survey of mothers in prison asked the women for the reasons behind their offending. Just over half (54%) said it was because they had no money. Another 38% said it was because they needed to support their children and 33% because they had no job.
  • Offenders may find their everyday options limited by the fact that they are in poverty or lack a stable job. Women often commit acquisitive crimes, meaning for the purpose of gaining something material such as money or clothes.

Women and mental health

  • Almost 40% of women prisoners had attempted suicide prior to entering prison.
  • Two-thirds of women in prison show symptoms of at least one neurotic disorder such as depression, anxiety and phobias. More than half are suffering from a personality disorder (mental disorders of long-term behaviour patterns).
  • Women prisoners are more likely than their male counterparts to have a serious mental illness.


  • Nearly two-thirds of women in prison have a drug problem.
  • 43% of women reported using crack cocaine and 44% heroin in the year before going to prison.
  • Some women are in prison because they were used as ‘drug mules’. This means that they carry drugs into the country and can be given sentences of up to 14 years if caught- a very harsh punishment considering they are not the leaders of a drug network and are likely facing abuse and coercion by those who are.
  • The concerning numbers of foreign national women acting as drug mules led to the formation of a charity called Hibiscus which specifically campaigns to educate women in countries such as Jamaica about the risks and high penalties involved in drug transportation. The campaign has been widely successful as the number of Jamaican women obtained for these offences has dropped. This shows that women are less likely to engage in drug trafficking if they are able to understand the consequences.

Women as victims

  • Research shows that men are more likely than women to experience stranger violence: 45% of violent incidents against men vs. 19% against women.
  • According to the British Crime Survey, the risk of becoming a victim of violent crime for women is highest for those aged 16 to 24, reducing for women aged 25 to 34 and very low for those women aged 75 and over.
  • It is estimated that women are significantly more likely than men to have been victims of theft from the person, and similarly, more likely to have their mobile phone stolen.
  • It is estimated that at least one in four males and one in three females will have experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. In the UK this amounts to over 20% of the population or over 10.4 million people.
  • Domestic violence is the only type of violence for which the risks for women are higher than for men. Domestic violence has the highest repeat victimisation of any crime.
  • The British Crime Survey showed that almost half of women in England and Wales have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
  • 70% of female homicide victims knew the main suspect (compared with only 41% of male homicide victims).

With these statistics in mind, a relationship has been shown between women’s victimisation and their subsequent offending behaviour. It is important to remember that many offenders (of both sexes) have also been victims at some point in time.

  • Over half of the women in prison say they have suffered domestic violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse.

Such high levels of mental health problems, drug use and victimisation as indicated by these figures, should influence how we view the behaviour of female offenders, and in turn how these women should be dealt with by the criminal justice system.


So are men and women treated differently by the criminal justice system?

The ‘chivalry hypothesis’ suggests that many people in the criminal justice system have stereotypical ideas about women and so treat them leniently. They may try to help women instead of punish them.

Sentencing and gender

  • Women are more likely than men to be cautioned instead of being charged.
  • Women are more likely than men to admit their offences and to be arrested for less serious offences.
  • Women are more likely than men to be discharged or given a community sentence for serious offences.
  • Women are less likely to be fined or sentenced to custody. In the case of mothers, sentencers sometimes feel that fines and custody penalise their children rather than just the offender.
  • Women sentenced to custody receive shorter sentences on average than men, but this partly reflects the differences in types of offences.

So how do we explain the high numbers of women locked-up in England and Wales? This is not because of some massive female ‘crime wave’, but is instead due to tougher sentencing.

  • The number of women appearing before courts is increasing.
  • A woman convicted of theft or handling stolen property in the Crown Court is now twice as likely to go to prison as in 1991.
  • In magistrates’ courts, the chances of a woman receiving a custodial sentence have risen seven-fold since 1991.
  • The length of prison sentences for women is increasing, such as sentences for drug convictions.

Gender and justice

The idea of equal opportunity is that women and men should be equally represented within sectors so that policies and practices are fairer and less open to gender-bias. So how are women represented in the criminal justice system and in the politics that influence it?

Do a lot of women work in the criminal justice system?

There are many women working in the criminal justice system, but they are not usually in senior management positions. Women make up more than half of probation officers, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyers, magistrates’ and Crown Court Staff as well as Home Office, Forensic Science Service and CICA staff. They are also well represented compared to men in victim support roles. Still, women are very under-represented as judges, barristers and prison officers.

  • Only 19.5% of MPs are women.
  • 22% Chief Crown Prosecutors are women.
  • There is only one woman in the House of Lords (England and Wales’ highest court), two women in the Court of Appeal and 10 women in the High Court (9%).
  • Just 40 out of 150 prisons have female Governors.


Gender and the police

Many of the police officers we encounter on the street and certainly most police characters in actions films are men. Is this the reality of policing? If so, does this effect how women offenders are policed?

  • Women make up about 20% of all police officers, but only 4 out of 43 Chief Constables are women.
  • Only 10% of senior police officers are women.
  • When it comes to reporting rape and domestic violence in particular, the interaction between female victims and male police officers is very important.

We can see that women are often a minority in these criminal justice positions. It is possible that because of this, women’s needs, requests or ideas may sometimes be over-looked.

Girls and crime

The number of girls going through the youth justice system is small in comparison to boys. Girls are less likely than boys to get prosecuted, receive community penalties, or prison sentences. Yet they are also less likely to commit serious offences or to have previous convictions.  Courts may even be tougher on girls as it is seen as more ‘unnatural’ for them to commit crime.

  • Studies show the average age at which offending began was 13½ for boys and 14 for girls. Although at younger ages, a similar proportion of boys and girls had offended, by the time they reached 17, male offenders outnumbered women offenders by a ratio of about 3:1.
  • The peak age of offending for girls is 14 compared to 18 for boys. The most common offences for female offenders under 16 are criminal damage, shoplifting, buying stolen goods and fighting.
  • Girls who had committed an offence were less likely to offend frequently and commit serious offences than boys.
  • As at August 2006, 3,031 under-18s were held in custody (Secure Children’s Homes, STCs and YOIs). Of that population, 226 are girls. From 1994 to 2004 the number of girls sentenced has doubled.

Perception of crime

Do men and women feel differently about crime? Are their concerns supported by the statistics?

  • Women were more likely than men to think the crime rate had increased a lot in the previous two years. Yet the most recent British Crime Survey shows that crime is stabilising after long periods of decline.
  • Women were more likely than men to have high levels of worry about being a victim of burglary and violent crime, but there was no difference for worry about car crime.
  • For each age group, women were over twice as likely to be worried about violent crime as men and this was especially true for younger age groups. Yet young men are actually most at risk of becoming victims of violent crime (except for domestic violence).

Current policy and plans

  • In 2005, the Home Office announced it will devote £9.15 million to new approaches to help reduce women’s offending. The new initiatives will be set up in two areas and claim to include women’s community supervision and support centres, where female offenders can access a whole range of services and support.
  • The Equality Act 2006 will come into effect in April 2007 and will require all public bodies, including criminal justice agencies, to regard the need to promote gender equality.
  • The Home Office currently rejects the need to set up a Women’s Justice Board (similar to the Youth Justice Board) to oversee criminal justice and prison issues directly related to female offenders. Such a board has been recommended by different organisations in light of the male dominance of the current system.

Did you know?

  • A quarter of women in prison have spent time in local authority care as a child.
  • Two women are murdered every week by their current or former partner.
  • 1 in 20 women in England and Wales has been a victim of rape according to Home Office statistics.