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Washington State University
CAS Connect February 2014

In Motion: Jennifer Schwartz investigates female and white-collar crime

Judging by today’s news, movies, and other popular media, American women are committing more crime than ever. They’re drinking more alcohol, getting into more fights, and inflicting greater generalized violence while also stealing and embezzling large sums of money.

Or are they?

“The funny thing is, the same could be said 10, 20, or even 100 years ago,” said Jennifer Schwartz, associate professor of sociology and an expert in crime trends, social control, and deviance. It seems that women today are being arrested more often for driving drunk, drugs, minor violence, and small frauds and embezzlement, but they are not actually committing any more crime than in the past 20 years or so, she said.

Jennifer Schwartz
Jennifer Schwartz

Just the facts, Ma’am

“In fact, women’s crime rates are declining just like men’s—although men’s rates are declining a bit more steeply because they were so much higher to begin with,” she said.

These gender disparities—in fact and perception—drive many of the questions behind Jennifer’s research. Why do women commit less crime than men? How does society respond when women break the law?

She uses novel and proven methods and diverse data sources to track trends in both women’s and men’s crime to get a holistic picture of social changes.

Assessing risk factors for fraud

In the wake of the global economic crisis, Jennifer’s expertise in crime trend analysis helped her and a collaborator recently secure a new grant for more than a half-million dollars from the U.S. Department of Justice to study the risk factors for corporate financial fraud (CFF).

The three-year research project promises to deliver the first comprehensive, multi-level dataset on major white-collar crime. It will help policymakers and stakeholders in many arenas—government, business, law, accounting, auditing, enforcement—understand corporate illegality and develop preventative strategies.

Jennifer and co-PI Darrell Steffensmeier of Penn State University are creating statistical portraits of firms and their top-level executives involved in CFF. They’re also identifying the associated risk and protective factors, such as corporate organizational structures, corporate board compositions, and individual attributes of CEOs/CFOs related to severe financial crime. From this information, they’ll create a rich database for analyzing public companies and executive involvement in CFF.

“Our most recent financial crisis and others before were prompted in no small part by corporate financial misdeeds,” Jennifer said. Identifying the antecedent conditions, or risk factors, is important for preventing them in the future, she said.

Another research project Jennifer is undertaking with WSU colleagues draws on electronic archives and enforcement records of the Environmental Protection Agency to explore the nature and extent of women’s involvement in environmental crimes relative to their male co-conspirators.

Continuing a tradition of leadership

After earning her doctorate in sociology at Penn State, Jennifer joined the WSU faculty in 2003. She said she felt “honored to work in Wilson-Short Hall, now named after one of the foremost criminologists of our time, Jim Short. It’s exciting to know the vibrant intellectual history and renown of sociological criminology at WSU and to be able to become a part of that tradition,” she said.

Jennifer Schwartz with student outdoorsDuring the first part of her career, Jennifer primarily tracked overall trends in female and male crime and social control. She’s recently grown interested in the motives, roles, risks, rewards, and punishments of women who commit crime with others.

“The criminal underworld has many barriers to women’s involvement, one being men’s general unwillingness to work with women as crime partners,” she said. “Of course, the more lucrative and violent crimes involve multiple offenders, conspiracy, etc., but I would like to better understand what contributes to variability in women’s criminal roles, enticements, rewards, and other details about involvement in criminal enterprise and co-offending relationships.

“What social factors are related to women being more involved in criminal enterprise versus being utilized in stereotypical, sex-typed ways?”

Infusing new ideas and energy

Jennifer’s research differs from other work on gender, crime, and punishment through its methodological creativity and rigor, which includes data triangulation techniques and a unique multi-method approach with plans to develop an original database based on archival research.

She hopes her research will be used in policy arenas to critically examine social control policies. “My work demonstrates that some policies which seem gender-neutral may have effects that are different for women and men.”

Before entering graduate school, Jennifer presumed, “like most people,” that women today must be catching up with men in terms of crime. “They’re making gains in so many other areas of life, so I was intrigued to find they weren’t when it came to crime. To me, it’s an interesting puzzle to think about.”

As an undergraduate, Jennifer was immediately drawn to the study of crime, she said, “so much that I never missed a day of my first crime/deviance class, which met at 8 a.m.!” She credits a strong graduate mentor for passing on to her his passion for the topic of gender, crime, and social control.

Her enthusiasm for crime studies is easily apparent to her students, colleagues, and family. “My 11-year-old son seems keenly interested in criminology and related social factors, which I count as a small success,” she said. “When he was three years old, our conversations in the car often would start with him saying, ‘Mommy, tell me about crime.’ Not sure how proud I should be of that,” she laughed.

Admired for scholarship and service

At WSU, Jennifer has logged many successes to be proud of. Co-director of sociology graduate studies, she has chaired or co-chaired nine PhD committees, including five currently. She has served on several other committees in- and outside her department and has authored or co-authored numerous peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries.

“Jennifer is a stalwart of our graduate program, supervising a large number of PhDs and making a critical contribution to the department,” said Don Dillman, Regents professor of sociology and deputy director of the Social and Economic Sciences Research Center at WSU.

“Her scholarship is superb and, more important, Professor Schwartz takes seriously her role as academic mentor by frequently publishing with graduate students and encouraging them to succeed in their own research,” said Lisa McIntyre, sociology chair.

“I like the curiosity and engagement of the graduate students and how they keep things fresh,” Jennifer said. “They are also keenly concerned with social justice, which is a good reminder to me that an important purpose of scholarship is to ameliorate social problems.”

Snapshot: Department of Sociology

From inequality to ecology, medicine to politics, and deviance to religion—the Department of Sociology provides critical expertise in teaching and research to delve into a broad array of human issues.

Wilson-Short Hall. Photo by Jordan Rinehart.
Wilson-Short Hall. Photo by Jordan Rinehart.

Nationally and internationally recognized faculty provide instruction and mentoring for more than 2,000 undergraduate majors and 50 graduate students each year at the Pullman, Vancouver, Tri-Cities, and Global (online) campuses.

Sociology students engage with expert faculty in tailored service-learning projects and conduct independent research. Evolving and dynamic study programs are focused in six core areas, including:

  • Environment, Technology, and Community –Investigating the interdependent relationship between organized social systems and complex ecosystems
  • Work, Organizations, and Labor Markets –Examining material and cultural factors that impact work, shape organizations, and structure labor markets
  • Political Sociology – Exploring social order and change—how we manage to live together productively and in a sustainable relationship with the earth, and why we sometimes fail in relationships or threaten that sustainability.

Experienced faculty bring specialized research focus and skills to many prominent and emerging areas, including: families, populations, and the life course; environment, society, and technology; and crime and deviance.

Sociology graduate students combine at least two areas of interest to define their own independent research. Study areas include criminology, demography, environmental sociology, family, labor markets, political sociology, and stratification.

Degrees offered

  • Minor
  • Bachelor of Arts
  • Master of Arts
  • PhD

Permanent: 16
Clinical and instructors: 2

Annual undergraduate teaching hours


Annual grant expenditures