Number of Female Gang Members

Both male and female gangs proliferated in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Although the percentage of gang members who were female is difficult to ascertain, all sources agree the numbers were significant.

Nationwide surveys of law enforcement agencies provide the most widely used data, although they have limitations. The first such survey, conducted in the mid-1970’s, estimated that 10 percent of all gang members were female (Miller, 1975). Some 20 years later, in 1992, another nationwide survey found that only 3.7 percent of all gang members were female (Spergel, 1995). A criminologist associated with the latter survey commented that this low proportion may have resulted because 32 percent of the surveyed jurisdictions did not, “as a matter of policy,” identify females as gang members (Curry and Decker, 1998, p. 98). Two other nationwide surveys of law enforcement agencies, conducted in 1996 and 1998, estimated that 11 percent and 8 percent, respectively, of all gang members were female (Moore and Terrett, 1998; National Youth Gang Center, 2000).

Other sources provide figures that are much higher than most law enforcement estimates. In surveys of youth in a wide range of cities, for example, the proportion of self-identified gang members who were female ranged from 8 to 38 percent, and the proportion of females surveyed who claimed gang membership ranged from 9 to 22 percent (Bjerregard and Smith, 1993; Cohen et al., 1994; Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993; Esbensen and Deschenes, 1998; Esbensen and Osgood, 1997; Fagan, 1990). Such surveys provide a valuable supplement to police sources, despite some limitations (which are discussed in Sources of Information About Female Gang Offending). The high number of female gang members recorded in self-report studies may reflect the younger ages of survey respondents compared with the ages of youth on police rosters: females tend to drop out of gang life at earlier ages than males, often because of pregnancy (cf. Moore, 1991). Finally, field research, although its reports are usually limited to one time and place, can offer additional insights. For example, in San Antonio, TX, field research has identified groups of girls who consistently hang out with male gangs. Even though they rarely define themselves as gangs, they may be seen as “gangs” by outsiders (Valdez and Cepeda, 1998). In some cities, females constitute up to one-third of the members in some gang cliques but are completely absent in others (Moore, 1991).

Surprisingly, female gangs are somewhat more likely to be found in small cities and rural areas than in large cities. Their ethnicity varies from one region to another, with African American gangs predominant in the Midwest and Northeast and Latina gangs predominant in the Southwest (National Youth Gang Center, 2000).

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Female Gangs: A Focus on Research Juvenile Justice Bulletin March 2001