Publication: Corrections Today
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 17495
ISSN: 01902563
Journal code: PCOR

Gender-responsiveness research in the criminal justice field has increased during the past decade as professionals learn more about differences between male and female offenders: their unique pathways to crime, their varying needs and gender-specific strategies to reduce crime. Gender responsiveness is also relevant to female professionals in community corrections because organizations need to recognize and address the needs of women in the workplace. While community corrections organizations are actively addressing the needs of female offenders, they are still struggling to meet the needs of female professionals working in the field.

Female Offenders in the System

The number of women under correctional supervision has increased significantly during the past several decades, but the policies addressing the criminality of women and how they are treated in the criminal justice system have not kept pace. Researchers have explored "gendered justice" and found most women in the criminal justice system are charged with nonviolent offenses and do not pose a serious risk to public safety.1 The increase in the incarceration rate of women has been influenced by structural and social causes of crime that have been largely ignored, while focusing on risk models based on male characteristics and male criminality. 2

Meda Chesney-Lind found that women have a high rate of technical violations while under community supervision, but strategies for dealing with technical violators are based on male criminality and do not generally take into account the needs of women.3 Ann Jacobs proposes a matrix model of addressing the needs of women under community supervision that includes recognizing challenges women face (poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, at-risk children and chronic physical and mental illness); developing a life plan within the domains of subsistence, residence, children and family, health, mental health and sobriety, and criminal justice compliance; and taking into consideration the degree of functionality of the individual.4

Prominent researchers in the field of gender issues in the criminal justice system developed six guiding principles to help organizations effectively supervise female offenders:

* Acknowledge that gender makes a difference;

* Create an environment based on safety, respect and dignity;

* Develop policies, practices and programs that are relational and promote healthy connections to children, family, significant others and the community;

* Address substance abuse, trauma and mental health issues through comprehensive, integrated and culturally relevant services, and appropriate supervision;

* Provide women with opportunities to improve their socioeconomic conditions; and

* Establish a system of community supervision and reentry with comprehensive, collaborative services.5

Gender issues, however, do not only apply to the inmates; community corrections agencies also need to consider the gender issues that may be affecting their staff.

Women in the Work Force

Women continue to face sexual harassment and gender discrimination, including disparity in pay - a phenomenon known as the "motherhood penalty" - and lack of promotional opportunities.

Sexual Harassment. Sexual harassment is defined as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature."6 Examination of gender proportions on sexual harassment situations in the workplace has shown sexual harassment is more common in workgroups where males are the majority because these contexts reinforce traditional sex roles.7 The sex-role spillover theory explains that men are more likely to behave in a manner consistent with their social roles of being aggressive when they are in male-skewed workgroups than when they are in female-skewed workgroups.8 As more women have entered the field of community corrections and provided a balance in the workgroup composition, sexual harassment complaints have decreased and working conditions seem to have improved during the past several decades. However, problems still exist.

Gender Discrimination. Women continue to experience gender discrimination in the modern workplace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average weekly salary of women in 2008 was only 81 percent of that of men.9 Despite the fact that 43.6 percent of women comprised the full-time work force in 2005, women made up only 31 percent of workers in the highest earnings category. Scholarly research supports the "motherhood penalty," which posits mothers earn less than their male counterparts. Having two to four children can decrease a woman's wages from 4 percent to 8 percent.10 The opposite - the "fatherhood premium"11 - has been shown to be true for males. In light of the U.S. Department of Labor statistics regarding the disparity in pay between men and women in similar positions, and a plethora of empirical research supporting gender discrimination regarding pay scales and promotional opportunities, community corrections organizations need to examine their current compensation structures and promotional processes to bring those in line with current gender-responsive strategies.

Commitment. Gender biases are manifested in a variety of contexts within organizations. Research has shown that gender bias is present in perceptions of commitment to the organization.12 Commitment has been associated with lower absenteeism, lower turnover rates and increased intention to stay with the agency.13 However, when examining these issues as they pertain to women employed in community corrections organizations, problems become evident. Women may often be the primary caregiver for their children, parents or other family members, which can explain absenteeism, but does not mean they are less committed to their jobs than their male counterparts. Because of the nature of community corrections and requirements for supervising offenders, when an employee is absent, the absence impacts his or her co-workers more so than a traditional office job. Turnover rates and perceived lack of intention to remain at one community corrections agency throughout their entire career does not translate into women being less valuable to the organization. Rather, an array of other social and structural factors could be at play. The increase in the number of single parents, increase in costs for child care, lack of child care options, and lack of equal pay and opportunities for women are explanations largely ignored.

The Glass Ceiling. The glass ceiling effect refers to a form of inequality where artificial obstacles hinder the advancement of women and minorities, and where the obstacles are more severe at higher occupational levels.14 Women may be in positions close enough to the top levels of administration in community corrections organizations, but still more men than women are in top-ranking positions. Advancement opportunities have improved for women in community corrections, but organizations should continue to strive toward global gender-responsiveness strategies.

Organizational Politics. Organizational politics play a key role in power structures and even in informal interactions. Women in community corrections organizations can, and do, experience gendered organizational politics. Although not always overt, these politics can be masculine in nature, which can act as a barrier to their careers due to political activity being "linked to the performance, achievement and maintenance of power."15 Formal internal policies, procedures and practices of an organization can create separations along gender lines, vertically and horizontally, whereby men hold the majority of top positions of power; the language used within the organization can promote gendered divisions (men as actors, women as supporters); and employees might accept these divisions as part of the organizational culture.16

These divisions become useful for men in the arena of promotions and career advancement, as there tends to be more informal and formal mentorship for male employees through the organizational politics of some community corrections organizations.

Improving Institutional Practices

The term "evidence-based practices" is used quite frequently today by community corrections professionals, but how many organizations are actually implementing and breathing life into this concept? Community corrections agencies at all levels - federal, state and local - have provided and continue to provide training to staff regarding evidence-based practices in relation to supervising the offender population. Additionally, community corrections organizations have recognized the importance of implementing programs and services grounded in empirical research to improve offender outcomes. However, it is yet to be determined how this principle has migrated into other aspects of operating a community corrections organization: hierarchical structures, communication practices, organizational culture, recruitment practices, training and on-boarding of new staff, retention of current staff, management and leadership practices, and gender responsivity.

Community corrections has placed importance on evidence-based practices and understanding what motivates offenders. The empirical research discussed throughout this article and the proposed guiding principles for implementing gender-responsive strategies for female offenders also can be applied to address gender issues for female professionals in community corrections.

Gender Matters. Agencies need to analyze their recruitment and hiring procedures, written policies and procedures, informal policies and practices, mentoring programs for staff and promotional opportunities as they relate to women. For example, do written policies default to using gender-specific descriptors (e.g., he or his), where the majority of employees are women? Or are job descriptions gender-neutral, excluding overall gender biases and gender-biased language? Staff retention and succession planning are critical issues in recruiting, developing and retaining experienced employees, so it is time to address gender issues in the community corrections work force.

Gender and Organizational Environment. Create an environment based on safety, respect and dignity. Are policies relating to the safety of female officers gender biased? Does the agency's policy relating to field work only allow for female officers to conduct home visits on female offenders, and male officers to conduct home visits on male offenders? Or do women have to take a field partner with them while doing field work? In some situations this is appropriate, but blanket policies such as this are discriminatory. A less discriminatory policy would be to account for the safety issues through self-defense training, nonlethal weapons training and ethics policies rather than limiting the jobs based on gender.

Another recommendation in this area is to provide all employees with clear sexual harassment policies and take appropriate action when such complaints are made. Considering that one out of four girls will suffer from sexual violence during their lifetime,17 this means that a portion of the female community corrections professionals have suffered sexual abuse. Employers have a responsibility to ensure they are providing appropriate work environments for all employees and understand sexual harassment in the workplace could further traumatize victims of sexual abuse.

Relationships. The organizational culture should be inclusive of informal networking opportunities and formal mentoring programs for women wanting to advance in the organization - absent of masculine-oriented organizational politics. The "relational principles women bring to the environment can have mutually beneficial consequences for multiple stakeholders"18 (including probationers, victims, judges and the community). Because women place high importance on relationships, community corrections organizations should allow for flexibility to maintain important relationships so as not to penalize staff for maintaining these relationships. This will maximize benefits for employees and the organization.

A system of community and collaboration. Does the organization have a fair representation of women on important committees tasked with making important decisions or recommending substantial changes within the organization? "Because women in the workplace help build connections rather than hierarchies,"19 fostering collaborative relationships will improve organizational functioning.

Community corrections organizations that truly embrace evidence-based practices should turn to the research available on gender responsivity not only regarding effectively managing their female offender populations, but also to glean ideas for how to appropriately respond to the needs of women in the workplace. Some strides have already been made in this area. For example, there has been an increase in the number of special trainings regarding gender-responsiveness strategies for female offenders, professional organizations sponsoring focus groups and publications dedicated to women's issues, and leadership training for women.


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16 Acker, J. 1998. The future of "gender and organizations": Connections and boundaries. Gender, Work and Organization, 5(4):195-206. Staffordshire, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.

17 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2007. Understanding sexual violence fact sheet. Retrieved from ncipc/pub-res/images/SV%20Factsheet.pdf.

18 Fletcher, J.K. 1999. Disappearing acts: Gender, race and relational practice at work. Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

19 Ibid.

Author affiliation:

Kelli D. Stevens is research and data coordinator at the Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections Department in Forth Worth, Texas.

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