Forensic Psychological Evaluations of Women who Embezzle

When compared to the extensive psychological study of criminal behavior in general, there is comparatively little psychological research on white collar crime, which includes such non-violent crimes as fraud, insider trading and embezzlement. Although increased public attention is being paid to wide-scale corporate malfeasance (e.g., the savings and loan crisis, the Enron scandal and Goldman Sachs’ role in the recent financial meltdown in the United States), there is very little psychological data about the individuals responsible for these events. There is even less research focused on the much more common forms of embezzlement, i.e., stealing money from one’s employer. Similarly, despite the fact that the rate of increase in the numbers of women arrested and convicted of crimes during the last several decades has significantly outstripped that of men  research literature on criminal behavior by women lags far behind that focused on men’s criminal conduct.

Available crime rate statistics indicate that women are arrested for embezzlement at higher rates than men. For example, one recent study found that women represented almost two-thirds of the individuals charged with major embezzlement (over $100,000) during 2010. Despite this, there is very little research regarding the psychological characteristics of women who embezzle. What little psychological data that we do have about women who embezzle suggest that the motivations of women who embezzle and the rationalizations that women use to justify their embezzlement may differ notably from those of men who embezzle (Coleman, 2002). For example, Cressey (1973) found that his sample of male embezzlers typically needed money as a result of individual problems that were brought on by their own behavior and that this was the motivation for their embezzlement. Cressey’s male subjects often rationalized their crimes by telling themselves that they “were only borrowing” the money. In contrast, Zietz (1981) observed that women were more likely to justify their conduct in terms of the needs of their children or spouse. In a study focused on motivational differences between male and female embezzlers Klenowski (2008) referred to this as the woman embezzler’s “appeal to higher loyalties,” specifically the needs of their families, to justify their behavior.

During the last several years, my team of advanced psychology students, Psychologist Residents and I have done forensic psychological evaluations of 28 women charged with embezzlement, ten facing federal charges and eight in state court. The amounts of money stolen by these women from their employers ranged from a low of about $3,000 to a high of $750,000. Consistent with other data, the majority of these women engaged in the embezzlement over a period of several years, and none of them had indicted co-defendants.

We have just begun to analyze our data, but a number of patterns appear to stand out. Unlike other female criminal defendants, almost none of these women had previous criminal charges, drug/alcohol problems or major mental illness in the psychotic spectrum. A significant number of the women who embezzled whom we evaluated psychologically were motivated by what Klenowski called “higher loyalties,” which primarily related to their desire to meet a variety of needs of their families (e.g., shelter, medical care) or their response to a direct request or indirect, but clear pressure from a male partner, spouse or boyfriend (none of whom were indicted) in order to preserve that relationship. Among this latter group, there was a good deal of psychological control or abuse by the male partner, though this was frequently denied by the accused woman.

In the remaining cases, several women had significant gambling problems and the rest were primarily motivated by their need to “buy stuff,” often a lot of it, to distract themselves from emotional or relationship problems or to please a partner or child. Although we have not yet looked at this formally, I think it is fair to say that in the first group, i.e., those motivated by family issues and/or coercive relationships, the development and explanation of the mitigating factors had a significant impact on the outcome of the case, even when the dollar amounts were very high (e.g., $500,000 to $750,000). In the cases in which the money was used primarily to “buy stuff” for self or others, even when the women had legitimate psychological problems, the psychological data typically had relatively little impact on the outcome of sentencing. Our data suggest that an exploration of the motivations and psychological characteristics of women accused of embezzlement is often a potentially useful source of information for plea negotiations and sentencing.

If you have questions about our research or a specific criminal case involving a woman who embezzled funds, please contact me through the Contact page or at

© Linda M. Grounds, Ph.D., 2011


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Coleman, J. W. (2002). The criminal elite: Understanding white-collar crime. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Cressey, D. (1973). Other people’s money: A study in the social psychology of embezzlement.New Jersey, NJ: Patterson Smith Publishing Corporation.

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Zietz, D. (1981). Women who embezzle or defraud: A study of convicted felons. New York, NY: Praeger Publishers.