Criminal record checks disproportionately impact women

Work with offenders on a new report from Unlock

While women overall are less likely to have a criminal record than men, those women who do are more likely to face barriers when accessing employment according to a new report by the charity Unlock, Angels or witches”: The impact of criminal records on women, published today to mark International Women's Day. 

The report, which brings together the voices and experiences of women with criminal records alongside data on employment and criminal record checks, highlights the need for dedicated strategies to address the post-conviction problems women face.  

The vast majority of women surveyed as part of the research (86%) cited employment as a problem, with 63% saying it was the biggest problem they faced. One woman said: “I’ve been struggling to get work. I can’t work in finance or admin roles for local government like I did previously as I need an enhanced DBS. I now work in low paid cleaning jobs but struggle to find cleaning work as all school cleaners, doctors surgeries need enhanced DBS checks.”  

By analysing data on the number of criminal record checks that disclosed convictions, the researchers found that, although less likely than men to have a criminal record, women are almost twice as likely to have their criminal records disclosed on a DBS check. One possible explanation for this is the higher level of checks required for traditionally female-dominated roles, such as care work and education. 

Over half the women (51%) surveyed by Unlock felt that being a woman made their post-conviction problems worse, with many citing additional stigma face by women with convictions. One respondent said: “Women are still treated as either angels or witches, there is no in between. Women with convictions are demonised in ways that men never have been”.  

The challenges of stigma and trauma 

What is also clear in the report is that for many women, their convictions exist alongside significant trauma; nearly two thirds (59%) of women surveyed reported having experienced domestic abuse at some point in their lives. A tenth said they had been a sex worker at some point in their lives, and 31% had experienced addiction or substance misuse. And yet there is a dangerous lack of support or understanding to enable these women to move on positively in their lives – they are simply handed the stigma that comes with a criminal record. Indeed, stigma was the second biggest problem for women with criminal convictions trying to find work. 

Conclusions and recommendations 

Dr Rachel Tynan, Practice and Policy Lead at Unlock, said:

“These findings clearly demonstrate that women face specific barriers and challenges because of their criminal record – and that these aren’t properly understood”.

The report sets out a number of recommendations including:

  • The Ministry of Justice should swiftly implement reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, including abolishing lifelong disclosure of criminal records
  • The Home Office and Ministry of Justice should jointly conduct a root and branch review of the criminal record disclosure system, specifically including the proportionality and impact on women and people with other protected characteristics
  • The government should legislate to enable legal action against employers who take spent convictions into account
  • The government should require employers to give meaningful reasons, in writing, in cases where they decide a criminal record makes someone unsuitable for a role
  • The Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service should create a strategy and work stream for employment that recognises the particular challenges for women leaving prison and on probation.