Taking Female Gangs Seriously: Areas for Future Research

The historic lack of research on female gangs suggests that almost every aspect of female gang membersí lives requires further research and analysis. In listing research needs, therefore, this Bulletin must be highly selective. The following proposed areas of research draw specifically on the analyses in this Bulletin:

  • Female gang formation. As discussed previously, several studies have shown that gang formation (for both males and females) is related to deteriorating inner-city economic conditions. However, no research has been conducted in the many cities where economic conditions improved during the 1990ís to determine whether there has been a commensurate decline in gang formation or in the persistence of gang membership into adulthood. General economic conditions influence male and female gangs alike, but a related issue applies specifically to women: how welfare reform and the elimination of Aid to Families With Dependent Children affect female gang formation and gang persistence.

  • Reasons for joining gangs. As most studies show, friendship, solidarity, self-affirmation, and a sense of new possibilities were found to motivate young inner-city females to join and remain in gangs. Several studies found that the female gang may be a refuge from physical and sexual abuse at home. Although sexual victimization is difficult to study, an understanding of it is relevant to programs designed to keep adolescent females out of gangs and programs designed to intervene with or provide safe havens for female gang members once they are in gangs. Additional research that provides a better understanding of why females join gangs may help communities develop prevention programs to deter female gang membership.

  • Ethnicity. Because it bears so heavily on gender roles, ethnicity is important in understanding how female gangs function and is also relevant to program design. More research is needed on this topic, particularly with regard to Latina and Asian immigrant gangs, white gangs, and multiethnic gangs.

  • Gender roles in gangs. Additional research is needed on the roles of females in drug gangs. Field research is also needed on female gang membersí involvement in other economic activities—legal and illegal—and their participation in violence. This research should focus on the gender structure of gangs (i.e., whether females form an autonomous gang, a female auxiliary of a male gang, or part of a gender-integrated gang).

  • Delinquency and criminality. More substantial data on female gang membersí delinquency and criminality are needed. Two possibilities for developing such data are described below:

    • Continue national surveys of local law enforcement agencies. Despite acknowledged problems of police underreporting and of varying local definitions of what constitutes a gang or a gang-related offense, surveys of law enforcement agencies provide a valuable look at changes over time.

    • Use existing law enforcement data sets. Drawing on local reports, two State agencies have compiled valuable data on female gang membersí offense patterns: the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority analyzed the annual offense patterns of male and female gang members in Chicago (see table) and the California Department of Justice analyzed the lifetime arrest records of female gang members in Los Angeles. These data sets could be used as models for other States with endemic gang problems.

  • Later-life consequences of female gang membership. Studies using systematic samples of former female gang members could identify factors associated with their success or failure in later life. Such studies would be useful for understanding the long-term consequences of female gang membership. In particular, research is needed on the incarceration experiences of female gang members and the role of female gangs in jails and prisons. More information is also needed about drug use and access to drug rehabilitation among female gang members. It is also important to know whether certain families have developed a tradition of gang membership and whether female gang members are more likely than male gang members to transmit that tradition to their children. There is no research to date on the children of female gang members.

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