Beyond its grim death toll, the fatal rampage by a female ex-postal worker in California was striking as an exception to the rule. Among the many high-profile workplace shootings in the United States over the years, virtually every perpetrator was male.
Several experts in homicides and workplace violence said they knew of no other case in which a woman, aggrieved over some job-related problem, had killed as many people as the five gunned down at a Goleta, Calif., postal center by an ex-employee who then killed herself.
“It’s a very masculine crime,” said Elicka Peterson, a criminologist at Appalachian State University. “And it’s incredibly rare for a woman to be involved in a homicide-suicide case like this.”
Men commit far more violent crimes in general than women, but experts say there are particular gender factors involved in workplace killings. They view men as more likely to respond aggressively toward bosses and co-workers when fired, laid off or reprimanded.
“Men tend to view violence as an offensive strategy, and women tend to view it in a more defensive mode,” said Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. “When you look at workplace killings, it’s almost always men, partly because men will often use violence to even the score.”
According to federal statistics, 12.3 percent of homicides are committed by women.
However, Fox said his analysis of 450 workplace shootings over the past 30 years — incidents arising from some type of employer-employee problem — shows that only 7 percent were carried out by women. A separate analysis of 600 fatal shootings in any type of setting in which at least four people were killed shows only 5 percent of the perpetrators were women, Fox said.
An exception, not a trend
Several criminologists interviewed Tuesday doubted that the Goleta killings would be seen as part of a broader trend.
“This is the exception — it’s rare, and therefore it becomes infamous,” said Mona Danner, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University. “There’s no indication it’s the beginning of a trend.”
Like other experts, Danner has noticed news reports in recent years suggesting that violence perpetrated by young women was becoming more common, but she described this as an artificial “hysteria” largely unsupported by statistics.
Carter Hay, a Florida State University criminologist, said the prevalence of males as perpetrators of workplace violence arose in part from a gender difference in responding to stress.
“Females are more inclined to internalize, to direct their reaction to themselves, and maybe experience anxiety or depression,” he said. “Males more likely to externalize.”
Experts noted that an increasing number of American women now hold jobs that provide crucial earnings for their families — possibly increasing the pool of women who could experience severe stress if something went wrong with the job.
“Inasmuch as women start to identify more fully with their job, anything that threatens that will be more stressful,” said Michael McIntyre, an expert in workplace psychology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. “Women are just as aggressive and hostile as men, but I’d expect them to use more subtle, indirect means of retaliation. There’s no reason to believe women are going to start stashing weapons.”
Different reactions to losing a job
Fox said men tend to react very differently from women when they are dismissed from a job.
“Men often view self-worth by what they do, women by what they are as an individual,” he said. “For men, a layoff can be a mortal blow to their self-esteem, not just a loss of income and camaraderie.”
Besides Monday’s incident, there have been just a handful of other fatal workplace shootings involving women. Among them:
- In Kentucky, Kim Harris received a life prison term in 2001 for shooting two female executives at a nursing home from which she had been fired.
- In Vermont, Elizabeth Teague fatally shot her boss and wounded two co-workers in 1991 at an Eveready battery plant. Psychiatrists said Teague, who was placed in a mental hospital, suffered from delusions that she was the victim of a conspiracy by the government and co-workers.
In several other cases, women were convicted of killings that occurred at a workplace but stemmed from troubled personal relationships, not from friction with employers or co-workers.