Girls have been using their brains to better effect than boys for years when it comes to exams and they are now doing the same to increase their status in street gangs according to new research.
While young men are content to hang around estates and town centres smoking drugs, girls are taking full advantage of their superior social skills in helping them climb the criminal ladder as they are increasingly relied on for money laundering, smuggling weapons in their prams or hiding drug stashes.
Dr Simon Harding, a lecturer in criminology and sociology at Middlesex University who spent four years talking to dozens of community workers and eight gang members aged 16-25 in Lambeth, south London, will tell the British Sociological Association annual conference in Leeds today that young women are becoming much more influential than less streetwise males.
Dr Harding, who approached the girls and young women through charities that work with them, said his research challenged the traditional view of girls as powerless hangers-on who had to suffer rape or other abuse as the price of belonging to the gang. He found males in the gangs are still using the standard methods of violence and criminal activity to gain respect and notoriety.
Dr Harding will say: “The rougher, tougher and nastier [boys] are, the higher their status. But the girls and young women could gain status in a different way through their social skills – they can become quite important players but not though violence or brutality. They deal in information – trading and exchanging this daily.
“In the gang world information is vital if you’re going to be successful at fighting off rivals and staying ahead of the police. The male members of the gangs often spend a lot of time hanging around with their gang mates, smoking dope, staying out of the way.”
One girl Dr Harding spoke to said she received around 300 texts a day, information which she sifted through to get an overall picture on what is happening every day regarding her own gang and rivals on the street.
“[These girls] know who is dealing drugs on the gang’s patch and when the police are watching the estate. They can be used to arrange fights with other gangs, and they can smuggle weapons or drugs – sometimes in the prams next to their babies. They can be used as ‘clean skins’ – they don’t have criminal records and it’s easier for them to avoid suspicion.
“The girls’ knowledge gives them status within the gang and the male members are wary of their power to spread rumours about them or inform on them to others in the gang, and that can put some of them in a powerful position.”
Dr Harding said his research sheds new light on street gangs as it has previously been assumed girls always had a low or secondary status within a gang. He told The Independent: “Some of them play the gang agenda quite well and make themselves indispensable. They’re not aware themselves of their increased standing. They are a small but noticeable percentage of girls involved in gangs and those who don’t have the same social skills find themselves on a slippery slope and end up being victimised - passed around for sex or gang raped.”
Rena Sodhi, Chief Executive of Safer London Foundation, which has worked with over 1,500 young women affected by gangs through its Empower programme, said: “In our experience of working with young women involved in gangs, even if they have ‘superior social skills’ it is male gang members who still have all the control and decision making power and decide which roles the women take. In the vast majority of cases young women are still being used by male gang members for criminal activities, are more at risk of violence from other gang members or rival gangs than their male counterparts, are in a precarious and high risk position and can quickly fall from grace with serious consequences.”