As more women rise to positions of power in the workforce, they also gain access to funds…and more opportunities to commit financial crimes.
A growing number of them are succumbing to temptation.
You may have heard of white-collar criminals Bernie Madoff and Leona Helmsley, but you most likely don’t know them personally. However, there’s a good chance you are acquainted with a less notorious fraudster or two. In fact, she may be one of your most trusted colleagues or employees.
She is a pink-collar criminal.
The term “pink-collar crime” was coined by criminologist Kathleen Daly, in a 1989 article in Criminology Magazine, to describe the growing number of low- to mid-level female office workers—bookkeepers, office managers, accountants, clerks—who steal from their employers.
Be it a small business, parent-teacher association, town government, charter school, volunteer organization, or even kids’ athletic club, there’s a rise in the number of seemingly “regular” women who break their employers’ trust and steal their money.
These thefts range from a few thousand to the low millions of dollars; beyond money, there’s the incalculable legal and emotional fallout that accompanies this financial and ethical breach of trust.
Why is it we’re still surprised when a woman steals, when there are more pink collar criminals today than ever? In fact, according to a 2011 Marquet International report, which analyzed 473 major embezzlement cases that year, nearly two-thirds of the cases involved women.
Orange Is the New Pink
I recently spoke with Dr. Freda Adler, author of the groundbreaking 1975 work, Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal. In the book, Dr. Adler predicted that as women flooded into the workplace, a rise in female incarceration rates would inevitably follow. At the time, only 4% of the criminal justice budget was dedicated to women. The criminal justice system, she argued, was simply not ready for the coming influx.
For years after its publication, Dr. Adler told me, her book was fiercely criticized. At the time, many thought her work was a critique of the ascendant women’s movement. But time proved her thesis right: Many more women did enter the criminal justice system after 1975. From 1994 to 2003 alone, embezzlement arrests increased 42% for women and only 2% for men, according to the FBI.
According to Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (Oregon’s only women’s prison) is currently at capacity. Coffee Creek, she adds, wasn’t expected to reach capacity until 2020.
A Glass Ceiling
Dr. Adler wouldn’t have to defend her thesis in today’s environment.
It’s a simple fact: More women are in the workplace than ever before. And female incarceration rates in the U.S. have soared.
Women are now the leading or solo breadwinners in 40 percent of American households, compared with just 11 percent in 1960, according to Census Bureau data recently released by Pew Research. Women are more responsible than ever for feeding their families, and that can equate to increased pressure to bring home more money.
Before the 1970s, far fewer women worked, and even fewer had had oversight of company money. Today, woman are ubiquitous in middle-management positions (but not necessarily above that level) at small- and medium-sized organizations.
But even in the field of embezzlement, there’s a “glass ceiling.” Women, on average, steal approximately .40-.45 for every dollar stolen by a man. That’s because women are now in positions of financial power, but they are lower-level positions and generally are under more scrutiny than higher ups.
There’s a long-held hypothesis that women mostly steal to make ends meet, and not for “grander” purposes. If this was ever the case, it’s not so today. Women are no more inherently honest than men; they simply haven’t traditionally been in the position to carry out high-dollar thefts.
When if comes to siphoning off funds, women’s ambitions may rival men’s. The difference is, they often lack the opportunities male workplace criminals enjoy. Fewer opportunities to achieve powerful positions, in essence, equate to fewer opportunities to steal.
If there is a glass ceiling in the world of municipal embezzlement, Rita Crundwell shattered it. The former CFO (and a dependable, long-serving employee) of the town of Dixon, Illinois, stole an amazing $53 million from a small town with an annual budget of only $8-9 million. Crundwell was recently sentenced to almost twenty years in prison.
While that story made the front pages, farther back in the paper, you’ll find stories of smaller-time criminals—women who get caught stealing from small organizations from dental offices (watch out dentists: some 30-60 percent of all practices experience embezzlement, often of the pink collar variety), to the local church.
The fact is that keeping any small to medium-sized organization safe from embezzlement is a challenge. The pink-collar criminal is often a trusted, long-term employee in an office, someone who’s worked at the same place for more than 10 years. For much of the time, she may not have stolen anything at all. And then one day, she gives in to temptation…and if no one notices, she may grow ever bolder.
These women steal, sometimes for years, under the radar. They don’t fit society’s stereotype of a criminal. They’re “normal” women from our communities: mothers, breadwinners, churchgoers, and volunteers. They’re Doris Day, and no one gives them a second look.
What You Can Do
What makes women go from law-abiding citizen to embezzlers? The three cornerstones of the fraud triangle—pressure, opportunity and rationalization—explain many cases. Most people would never rationalize a theft. But financial pressure and opportunity can create a perfect storm of motivation.
Many employers tell me that they pay their long-term, trusted employees better than average. That’s nice, but if those employees spend more than above average, they may still be tempted to steal.
Ultimately, the only things an employer or supervisor can control are opportunity and oversight.
If you’re a small business owner, having bank statements sent to your home and reviewing them carefully is a great start. Make sure your employees are taking vacations—many embezzlement cases are discovered when the employee calls in sick or takes a few days off. When someone takes over that employee’s duties, they see that something isn’t right, like a statement from an unknown account or a payment made to a personal credit card.
Ultimately, the only thing an employer or supervisor can control is opportunity.
Bosses and supervisors need to be paying attention to employees. It sounds simple, but it involves getting into a certain habit of mind. A recent news story describes an Oregon boss who looked out the window one day and saw his assistant driving a Cadillac Escalade. That same employee was known to keep horses as a hobby. Eventually, but painfully late, it occurred to the boss to take a look at his books. It turns out that this trusted female colleague had stolen over $800,000.
It has long been said that men steal for the three Ws: wine, women, and wagers. A more recent proverb holds that women steal for the three C’s: cars, clothing, and casinos. A dentist recently told me he should have known something was awry when he noticed his office manager’s Lexus was newer than his.
Pay attention to your employees’ lifestyles.
Perhaps the worst aspect of these cases is the feelings of hurt, betrayal, and broken trust that often linger long after the crime itself is resolved. Pink collar criminals, many of whom were like part of an office family, can destroy a victim’s trust in all employees.
Most of the victims I know never saw this coming. They often say they’ve lost the joy and camaraderie of running a small organization. The money can always be replaced—these victims were successful in the first place and will continue to be successful—but you can’t buy back trust.
Pink collar criminals are often the “nice ones” in the office. Some folks, to be sure, are just nice. But these fine ladies are nice for a reason—to cover their pink-collar crimes.
Previous versions of this article have appeared in Cascade Business News and the Portland Business Journal.
About the Author:
Kelly Paxton is a Certified Fraud Examiner and licensed private investigator. She is the principal of Financial CaseWorks LLC and owns the website pinkcollarcrime.com. She is a frequent speaker on the topic of fraud and pink collar crime.