Gender Stereotyping in Crime

Why is it a surprise that two of the young terrorists in Bel Canto are female? This for me was the most significant detail in chapter four, as I myself could not blame the fictional male characters in Anne Patchett’s novel because I had not considered the idea myself. Patchett is clearly challenging perceptions of what defines innocence and whether females embody this more so than males. It certainly explains some of Gen’s unease with the one pretty terrorist. I also find it interesting that this same terrorist, one of the only two girls, is the one taking such a fascination and protective stance around Roxanne Coss, the only female among the hostages.

The assumption that terrorism, and generally organized crime, is too brutal or corrupt for women to participate really got me thinking. How involved are women in organized crime? Why would women be drawn to this lifestyle? Why don’t people generally expect this?

Interestingly enough, there has been a recorded upsurge in women in international organized crime recently. The predominate theory for this rise in female involvement in crime is the “emancipation theory,” which speculates that women have risen through the ranks of crime in correlation to historical women starting to leave their traditional roles in the household for careers in the workplace (Siegel, p. 5). However, as later noted by Dina Siegel in her article “Women in Transnational Organized Crime,” this seems a little unsubstantiated considering the low statistics of women in crime organizations (p. 5).

Siegel explains that through examining old archives, it becomes apparent, particularly through study of the Italian mob, that despite how wives and daughters of mafia members are portrayed in media, they were often more involved in their husbands’ career in crime than previously believed. Though it is true that many mafia wives perpetuated the social norms and ideas of honor prevalent in mafia culture and were seen as property to display the wealth and power of their husbands, all of them benefitted from their husband’s wealth and status (p. 2). In fact, Siegel cites one wife of influential Odessa godfather Yapontchik who only married him during the economic instability caused by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, after many rejections. In addition, many wives of mafia men acted as messengers, mailwomen, and mediators between rival families (p. 3).

There are some differences among leadership styles of and cultural perspectives concerning historical criminal women. For example, the legendary “La Nacha” of Colombia, who controlled the heroin market in the 1970’s and ordered murders, is sometimes viewed as “a loving mother and a female Robin Hood because of her generosity to the local women”. However, also in Colombia, Mery Valencia is seen as “cold, violent” and intimidating (p. 4).

Various hypotheses speculate why women are drawn to criminal activities. In today’s world, with increased globalization and international trading, the heightened amount of drug and human trafficking could be a reason for more female involvement in organized crime (p. 6). Most of the nations that have seen an upsurge in these illegal activities are what we would consider developing. Indeed, the Western ideals of power, sex, glory, and wealth shown in advertising in many of these areas, and evidenced by local madams or female drug lords, could be an influencing factor (p. 11). This evidences an entirely new facet to organized crime in general, particularly involving women.

I was drawn to not just the socio-economic, but also the biological or psychological, aspects of the possible reasons contributing to why women are drawn to a criminal lifestyle. I decided to do some comparative research on the leadership styles of and issues facing female project managers in today’s workplace. Some characteristics the women in a gender study in a South African electricity company cited as helpful in completing a project fall under inter-personal skills, such as kindness, respectfulness, and regard for others. These are in agreement with some “traditional” female characteristics (Maseko et al., p. 5). However, seemingly masculine characteristics of competent, quick decision-making skills and business skills were also stressed in importance by the women (p. 6).

The division of feminine versus masculine traits is very much comparable to leadership of female crime lords. This sheds some light on the differing views of La Nacha and Mery Valencia of Colombia. The former is celebrated for her traditional feminine characteristics, while the latter is despised for her more masculine qualities. The difficulties facing the project managers included gender-stereotyping and presumptions of men that oversexualize women in higher positions, which is still an issue in criminal markets as well (Maseko et al., p. 5-6).

In addition to these challenges, the project managers also said competition with other women made it difficult to climb the economic ladder (p. 5). This brings to mind the competition among female sex-workers, who sometimes become employed so that they can gain enough wealth and status to become madams themselves in lucrative human-trafficking endeavors (Siegel, p. 12). The role of madam is one I myself seriously have trouble understanding, as it seems to exploit other women for the madam’s personal gain.

My research evidences that Anne Patchett writes of the surprise the men faced at finally seeing females among the ranks of the terrorists because of gender-stereotypes founded in real social and professional dynamics. All of the research I found seems to point to gender-stereotyping, particularly in developing nations, as a huge influence for women involved in both legal and illegal activities.


Maseko, Busisiwe M., and Cecil N. Gerwel Proches. “Leadership Styles Deployed by Women Project Managers.” Gender and Behavior 11.2 (Dec. 2013): 5663 – 72. Ebscohost. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

Siegel, Dina. “Women in Transnational Organized Crime.” Trends in Organized Crime 17.1 (June 2014): 52 – 65.   Ebscohost. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.


2 thoughts on “Gender Stereotyping in Crime

  1. katelynzander says:

    I enjoyed learning about this topic. It is crazy to think that even us, being female that we were still surprised at learning that these two terrorists were girls. I do find it interesting that women have been the backbone to many organized crimes. We don’t hear about it as often because the women are probably not charged since it is the men doing the dirty work. The feminine traits that you mentioned, inter-personal skills, such as kindness, respectfulness, and regard for other allows them create bonds with enemies or trick people into giving them what they want or need. It was appealing to see how a woman can be both an asset and liability when integrated within an organized crime.
    I did like the point that we made in class about the two differences between these two girls. It really shows the diversity that women bring to such a situation and how the men are handle these two young girls in a situation. The big point we made in class was that one seemed more feminie and quiet while the other was a little rough around the edges and not afraid to show it. I wonder if that girl is being quite because she is locked in a house with many older men and seen a pretty or if she doesn’t really believe in what the generals are ordering them to do. This really connects well with the child soldiers reflections because I wonder if they’ve threatened her family or her. I think you could really take the topic in an interesting direction it’d just take some more digging. Perhaps, how organized crime has benefited with a woman.


  2. Michael Pedersen says:

    Gender roles and the social stigma that is attached in challenging them has become increasingly more apparent in this novel.
    Although you only mention the idea of media perception briefly in your post I believe it is a worthwhile point of expansion on your original research. The fact that the media can guide the perception of half of the overall population quickly becomes a self reinforcing cycle. Looking into the historical ramifications of this could shed some light into the current and past societal assignments made to women.
    In relation to the typical personality traits usually assigned to women there is also something to be said about the perception of physical appearance and associated stereotypes. It has been referenced previously in the class but the idea that height compels some higher level of authority than normal is relevant. In your research you focus on female leaders in crime organizations so it might be worthwhile to see if height has had a historical impact in women criminals across history.
    As I mentioned in class, one further avenue of research could be to see how the military is used as an outlet and often rehabilitation for criminal activity. Although most research probably will be centered around men the methods used to adopt these trouble makers into the military and out of the hazardous environments that lead to criminal behavior are universal.
    All in all, this was a very interesting blog post that made references to a large number of different yet related sources and combined them into one enjoyable, cohesive whole.


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