Gender Stereotypes See Female Criminals Fare Better in Court

Michelle Kilfoyle and Arnaud Philippe
17 November 2021

The criminal justice system represents a rare sector of society where women fare better than men. Female criminals are less likely to be arrested, sent to court and sentenced than male offenders, even for equivalent crimes. Where women are sentenced, their punishments are usually less severe.

New research concludes that the differences in sentencing for men and women are due to gender stereotyping of defendants in court. Protective, paternalistic attitudes of male judges towards female defendants seem to be a key reason for the more lenient punishments handed to women.

Official statistics from France, the UK and the USA all show the preferential treatment of women throughout the criminal justice system. The new study, by Arnaud Philippe of the University of Bristol’s School of Economics and Centre for Evidence-based Public Services (CEPS), draws on criminal court data to both confirm and quantify genuine differences between sentences for men and women in France, and to find reasons for this gender gap.

Philippe analysed data for 1.37 million convictions in France between 2000 and 2003 for a criminal category called delits in French. This covers most forms of crime: property crimes, violent crimes, economic crimes, insults, drug-related crimes and road-related offenses.

The average prison sentence for men was 47 days, and 19 days for women. Having accounted for the influence of non-gender factors on sentencing, such as the form of crime, the defendant’s history of criminal activity and their socioeconomic characteristics, the study found that gender was responsible for a 15-day difference in sentence lengths for men and women. Women were also slightly more likely to receive suspended prison sentences.

Digging deeper into the data, Philippe homed in on court cases featuring just two people on trial, one man and one woman, convicted of the same crime. This enabled an even clearer picture of just how gender influences sentencing when other factors are equal, in particular, the judges and prosecutor working on the trial, and the trial’s time and place.

The sentencing gender gap was even more striking for these 2382 mixed-gender pairs. Women’s prison sentences were, on average, 25.6 days shorter than men’s and their probation sentences 2.4 days shorter. Men received longer prison sentences even if their female partner had a longer history of committing crimes – a factor normally associated with harsher sentencing.

Notably, the differences between sentences for men and women were smaller in trials with more female judges in court. Three judges work on each court case for delits, and an increase in the share of female judges of around 20% was associated with 1.5 days longer prison sentences for women, and 1.7 days longer probation. The gender of the prosecutor had no influence on sentencing rates or harshness.

The study’s findings suggest that gender stereotyping by judges was the main driver of the sentencing gender gap. Drawing on wider evidence from the US, Philippe points to the influence of paternalism among male judges, who may view women as fragile and perhaps less able to cope with prison.

These results reflect a common pattern in society whereby individuals tend to discriminate less against people of a similar demographic to themselves. In this case, female judges were less likely to positively discriminate towards female criminals.

The results do not support other possible explanations for the disparities, such as the need to adhere to the criminal code. This might, conceivably, see mothers treated less harshly for their

children’s sake as part of judges’ obligations to protect society, for instance, but this was not shown by the data.

As well as providing clear evidence of discrimination between men and women in court, the study also demonstrates the broader value of diversity among decision makers in reducing discrimination

Michelle Kilfoyle – CEPS Science Writer
Arnaud Philippe – Senior Lecturer, School of Economics

Study Counts Devastating Toll of Domestic Violence Faced by Mothers on Their Children

Study Counts Devastating Toll of Domestic Violence Faced by Mothers on Their Children

Michelle Kilfoyle and Zahra Siddique – 18 October 2021

Described as the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ by the UN, the global rise in domestic violence against women since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic is a huge cause for concern. New research further emphasises the urgent need to tackle domestic violence by exposing the scale of its devastating effects on the children of women who suffer at the hands of their partners. The large-scale study, which draws on data from half a million families across the developing world, finds that children born to victims of domestic violence are more likely to die by the age of five than children of mothers who do not. Further, women who experience violence endure more stillbirths.

Even before the pandemic, 1 in 3 women across the world experienced physical or sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner, with rates particularly high in developing regions such as Central sub-Saharan Africa (65.64% of women) and South Asia (41.73%). In 2020, the UN estimated that global cases rose by 20% during lockdown.

This study provides further evidence on the costs of domestic violence by highlighting the damage inflicted upon the wider family, specifically children. Zahra Siddique of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Evidence-based Public Services (CEPS) in the School of Economics, in collaboration with Samantha Rawlings of the University of Reading, analysed the results of 54 Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) carried out in 32 developing countries between 2000 and 2016.

Collectively, these surveys interviewed around 500,000 women aged 18 to 49 on issues including domestic abuse, births and deaths of children, and pregnancy loss. Interviewers used robust protocols to help participants feel safe and comfortable and maximise the honesty of responses. Twenty-nine per cent of the women reported experiencing physical abuse at some point in their life , while 9% reported experiencing sexual violence.

A host of factors lead to higher death rates among children of mothers who have experienced domestic abuse. In developing countries, families with abusive members tend also to be poorer and less well-educated; all these factors heighten the risk of children dying.

However, Siddique and Rawlings’ research methods allowed them to disentangle the effects of these factors to put precise figures on the damage inflicted by domestic violence alone.

Death rates within the first 30 days of life for children whose mothers experienced physical abuse were 3.7%, compared with 3.0% for children of non-victims. Siddique and Rawlings attribute a significant fraction of this difference – 0.4 percentage points – to the physical abuse. This accounts for around 4,500 deaths among the 1.14 million babies included in this part of the study.

Further, children of domestic-violence victims were 0.7 percentage points more likely to die within a year, and 1.0 percentage points more likely to die within five years of being born. This means that domestic violence led to the deaths of 7,600 babies (of 1.09 million studied) before the age of one, and 8,500 deaths (of 0.86 million children studied) by the age of five.

Most deaths occurred in families where the women experience frequent violence, as opposed to occasional violence.

Further, mothers who experience physical domestic violence were 1.4% points more likely to suffer stillbirth than women who are not victims, with a similar picture emerging for sexual violence.

To help pinpoint the impact of domestic violence on mortality rates, the researchers estimated the influence of ‘unobservables’, that is, differences in characteristics between victims and non-victims that cannot be measured in the data, but can affect mortality rates. They found that the effect of these factors would need to be much larger, by 2-3 times, to be able to completely rule out domestic violence as the cause of the deaths – giving confidence that violence did explain the higher death rates. These behaviours are likely to arise from extreme stress levels, and the study recommends deeper investigation into these factors to better understand the links between domestic violence and childhood mortality.

Michelle Kilfoyle – CEPS Blog Science Writer

Zahra Siddique – Associate Professor of Economics, University of Bristol