Published April 2019
Regional Perspective: Pacific Islands Region - added in November 2019
This module is a resource for lecturers
Why do we know so little about gender in organized crime?
Perhaps you are wondering: why have I not heard about gender and organized crime before? One answer is that organized crime is clandestine, hidden and must remain that way to succeed. Criminal actors consistently seek to protect their activities from detection by law enforcement, but also from competitors or any other actors who could uncover or dismantle them (see Module 5 on this issue). These factors have resulted in researchers having limited access or ability to conduct empirical work on organized crime and to fully understand the role of gender in organized crime.
Having this in mind it should not come as a surprise that empirical, evidence-based research on organized crime is limited. The over-representation of male researchers in organized crime research in many countries has also shaped the agenda. For example, most studies on organized crime focus on the experiences of men, and tend to explore their roles as leaders, heads or bosses (think of the many reports on El Chapo, Pablo Escobar, Toto Riina, Al Capone or the numerous mobsters of the past). Work on the experiences of men performing tasks considered of lesser importance or seen as less charismatic or visible are much less common, as are women's experiences. If present, women are depicted primarily in function of their relationships with men - in other words, primarily as their romantic interests (see Sanchez, 2016). Ethnographies that explore women's experiences and perspectives from a different angle are quite limited. Furthermore, perceptions of criminal activities and spaces as dangerous may also limit the access granted to women researchers to study criminal practices, on the grounds that their integrity or safety may be at stake. Fears over the potential risks female scholars may face, however, also restrict women's participation in and perspectives on organized crime scholarship, which in many countries continues to be characteristically a male dominated field.
There is also of course, the role played by the media in the way we think about gender. The general public enjoys the stories of organized crime, even though they often provide stereotypical assumptions concerning the people who participate in criminal markets. While many of these movies, television shows, or documentaries are certainly entertaining, it is also important to be aware of the messages that are conveyed by these representations and to find ways to engage with them critically.
Political contexts and funding also play a role in the topics that become studied, and in the ways these are included in policy and practice. A useful example is gang research, which is largely based on data collected by the criminal justice systems, and in particular, law enforcement investigations. For law enforcement, gangs constitute serious security threats and top enforcement priorities. Agencies worldwide use significant human and financial resources to identify, target and eradicate gang activity. Much of this effort has been focused on their identification, the documentation of forms of inter-gang violence, and on the development of initiatives aimed to control and dismantle them. Over the years, the gang phenomenon has been primarily understood as male and investigated as such. In the face of the overwhelming violence often characterizing the world of gangs, it is all too easy to overlook the women who are also stranded in this unsafe, unstable environment, even though around the world women also participate within and do form their own gangs (Miller, 2001). Combined, these factors have led to women's experiences with and within gangs and their experiences with the criminal justice system to be understudied.