Criminal justice system involvement and gender stereotypes: consequences and implications for women's implicit and explicit criminal identities.

Author:Rivera, Luis M.
Position::Wrongful Convictions: Understanding and Addressing Criminal Injustice

    In a time of declining incarceration rates, female jail, prison, and probation rates continue to increase. (1) Women currently represent eighteen percent of people under some form of correctional supervision. (2) More specifically, they comprise approximately twenty-five percent of the probation population, fourteen percent of the jail population, twelve percent of parolees, and seven percent of prisoners. (3) Women are less likely than men to serve state prison time for a violent crime, but are more likely than men to serve state prison time for a property or a drug-related crime. (4) Despite these growing rates, women have a low probability of committing crimes, being arrested, and/or being incarcerated relative to men, (5) and this fact is well represented in the memories of society at large, as well as individuals. (6) This expectancy is transmitted via media and daily interactions and has been maintained over time. (7) Further, this expectancy is one explanatory factor of gender stereotypes and has broad implications for the behavioral actions of each gender more generally. (8) Through socialization processes, gender expectancies and social roles have shaped the stereotype that women are not criminals. (9) Instead, women are expected to conform to communal-based behaviors characterized by friendliness, unselfishness, and expressiveness, which are traits that inhibit criminality (e.g., aggression in a homicide). (10) This paper asks: What are the cognitive and behavioral consequences when women violate society's gender norms by committing a crime and participate in a criminal justice system that has been designed for male offenders? (11) We argue that one consequence of gender stereotyping within criminal justice processing and supervision is the divergent effect on women's (but not men's) criminal identity--one identity that is relatively explicit and thus governed by women's self-presentation motivations, and one identity that is relatively implicit and thus operates at a basic cognitive level absent of motivations.


    Social identity (12) is shaped and maintained by a combination of affective, behavioral, and cognitive variables. Affective factors include a basic human need to belong that leads to developing some level of long-term and significant relationships with others, including groups. (13) The consequence of establishing membership in a group is "ingroup affect," which is the positive feelings associated with a group and is the emotional cornerstone of group identity. (14) Although negative attitudes toward criminals are socially normative because criminality imposes a burden on society, criminals constitute a group that, like other groups, can be a source of ingroup affect. (15) Therefore, it stands to reason that individuals who identify with criminals experience positive feelings of belonging and self-worth because of their group membership. This affective state increases and is maintained due to positive and continuous interactions with criminal peers, an effect evident in many male criminals who report feelings of cohesiveness and belonging. (16)

    Because social identity defines an individual's self-concept, it places a value on behaviors that enhance, maintain, and protect a group and its membership. (17) As a result, group members are motivated to act in ways that are consistent with a particular identity. (18) Identity-based behaviors therefore have important implications for understanding criminal identity and related acts. First, the onset of criminal behavior is believed to be a function (at least partly) of frequent childhood exposure to criminality in the home and neighborhood, (19) and the continuation of criminal behavior is due to adult experiences with criminal peers. (20) Second, the more individuals spend time thinking about being a criminal and its centrality to their identity, the more readiness they possess to act according to specific terms of the group. (21)

    Finally, the cognitive factors that shape and maintain a social identity include one's knowledge of groups, group membership, and group attributes regardless of their assigned value. (22) This knowledge is partly shaped by individuals' perceptions of others' actions and treatment toward them as a function of their group membership. (23) These cognitive perceptions have important implications for criminal identity and identity-based behaviors. Specifically, the particular expectations of criminals that others possess lead to actions that cause the expectations to come to fruition. (24) For instance, a criminal may be (inaccurately) believed to be a liar and others will treat criminals based on this expectation, such as always doubting what a criminal says or never trusting a criminal. These actions, in turn, may cause the criminal to act in ways that appear to be consistent with the original expectation and thus perpetuate his or her hardships and misfortunes in life.

    Criminal identity processes have important implications for female offenders. Individuals strive to meet their identity-based affective needs by knowing how to behave, what to think, and who they are by categorizing themselves in a particular social group. (25) However, when one fails to identify with a social group because one's actions are inconsistent with definitions of self, an increase in negative affect and psychological dissonance are observed. (26) Women who have had a criminal experience, but believe that such behavior is inconsistent with their societal roles, view themselves as having failed in their social roles. For example, while "male" and "criminal" may be reinforcing links to self, "female" and "criminal" result in an imbalance due to the link between self and the outgroup. (27) In the remaining parts of this paper, we posit that female offenders will resist forming these associations in large part because of gender stereotypes and their effect on the self-concept. The downstream consequence is a discrepancy between women's implicit and explicit criminal identities.


    Gender stereotypes are beliefs in a society that most (if not all) women and men should exhibit specific traits and role behaviors. (28) Traits are conceptualized as the characteristics that determine personality and disposition. Men are typically associated with traits related to intellect, power, rationality, achievement, autonomy, and aggression, (29) whereas women are typically associated with traits related to emotions, interpersonal sensitivity, warmth, expressiveness, affiliation, and nurturance. (30) These gendered traits appear to be cross-cultural and transnational (but there is also variability and significant exceptions). (31) In addition to traits, role behaviors characterize gender stereotypes. Gender role behaviors are defined as the behavioral actions associated with the domains of family and employment, among others. (32) At home, for example, men are strongly associated with being the head of household, financial provider, and the individual responsible for repairs, whereas women are strongly associated with managing the house, taking care of children, and being responsible for decorating the house. (33) Moreover, in the employment domain, men are associated with occupations related to intellect and physical labor such as working as chemists and plumbers, (34) while women are associated with occupations related to service and caretaking such as working as school teachers and nurses. (35) In summary, cultural gender stereotypes promote and maintain the notion that women are relatively communal and men are relatively agentic. (36)

    Cultural stereotypes can have a significant but differential impact on women's versus men's self-concepts via social identity and self-categorization processes. (37) Namely, gender self-stereotyping occurs when women and men associate their self-concept with their group's stereotypes, regardless of whether the attributes are positive or negative. (38) They evaluate themselves in terms of their gender capabilities, their social groups, and the way society perceives their gender. (39) Furthermore, women and men tend to behave in a manner consistent with gender stereotypes and their respective categories of "women" and "men." (40) One implication for women who commit a crime is that they will not behave or will resist behaving in a manner inconsistent with expectations of the category of "women" (i.e., men). Because "criminal" is typically associated with the male gender, female criminals are often seen as aberrations from the norm. (41)

    This gender-stereotype violation hypothesis also follows from symbolic interactionism and its basic tenet that an individual's self-perceptions are a function of the ascribed meaning and interpretation of others' actions toward the individual. (42) Female criminals' perceptions of how others view their character and behavior are believed to influence the way they consequently view themselves. (43) However, women primarily view themselves in relation to others, which follows from communal-based stereotypes. (44) Although many female criminals have to psychologically balance between being treated as a deviant because they broke the law and being seen as unfit mothers, bad wives, and disobedient daughters, (45) these same women's self-concepts are strongly rooted in a communal-based identification. Their close relationships may motivate female offenders to self-report a weak identity with criminality. In sum, criminal behavior presents an identity challenge for women. Our research adopts implicit social cognition theory to better understand the identity-based processes underlying women's complicated criminal identities.


    Social psychologists have proposed implicit social cognition (ISC) theories as a framework for understanding the cognitive processes...

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