It is almost a cliche that getting more women into power is a good way to tackle corruption. Women, the argument goes, are less likely to take bribes or put personal gain before public good.
But is it true?
While many bristle at the suggestion that women are the “fairer sex,” considering it simplistic and even sexist, a growing body of research hints that the ascent of women might indeed help dent corruption.
A deeper look shows the connection between gender and corruption is more complex than the cliche suggests.
It is not that women are purer than men or immune to the pull of greed. Rather, the link appears to be that women are more likely to rise to positions of power in open and democratic political systems, and such societies are generally more intolerant of wrongdoing, including the abuse of power and siphoning off of public money.
“It’s not about having more women in politics and saying, ‘Ah, that will change everything,'” said Melanne Verveer, US ambassador for global women’s issues.
“It’s about changing the gender imbalance and then we could do a better job of tackling our problems. From what we can glean, you can tell this would have a salutary effect.”
So it might not be a direct cause, but anecdotal evidence would seem to support the view that with more women in public office the quality of government improves, and with that. corruption falls.
In Lima, Peru, for instance, a field study by Sabrina Karim found that public perceptions of whether bribery was a major problem among traffic police had plummeted in 2012 compared with 14 years earlier. The change came after recruiting 2,500 women to patrol the streets.
A separate public opinion survey showed 86 percent approval for the job done by female traffic officers. From the point of view of the female traffic police, Karim, now a doctoral candidate at Emory University, found that 95 percent of those surveyed thought the presence of women on the force had reduced corruption and 67 percent believed women were less corrupt.
Mexico has copied Lima and introduced women officers as a way to tackle corruption.
India also has seen changes since a 1993 law reserved 30 percent of seats on village councils for women. The World Bank’s annual World Development Report this year credited this change for increasing the provision of clean water, sanitation, schools and other public goods in the villages, and for lower levels of corruption.
The World Bank report found that bribes paid in Indian villages headed by women were 2.7 to 3.2 percentage points lower than in those led by men. When men control all the levers of power, researchers say, money is more likely to be invested in big-ticket construction projects such as road building where corruption is rife, rather than in schools or clinics.
Mahnaz Afkhami, who was minister of state for women’s affairs in Iran from 1975 to 1978, thinks raising women’s voices can have a significant impact on the quality of government.
“There is a direct relationship between the level of democracy and the presentation of women in leadership and the quality of governance,” said Afkhami.
“They are not part of the old boy’s network and they are less willing to take for granted that this is the way things are done,” she said.
Afkhami is now president of Women’s Learning Partnership, a training and advocacy center for women leaders based in Maryland. During her tenure in Iran, she oversaw women gaining equal rights to divorce, support for employment, maternity leave and childcare. In Nicaragua, a councilman soliciting sex in return for metal roofing for her home prompted Aurora Arauz to run for a seat on the municipal council.
Arauz was president of a women’s cooperative and trained in her legal rights, so she filed a police complaint when the council member sought a sexual bribe, the UN Development Programme reported in a study published in October on women’s perceptions of corruption. The council threw the man off the body and held a special meeting to improve services for women, including naming Arauz as a women’s coordinator.
All these examples reinforce an influential World Bank study in 1999, which found that for every standard deviation point increase in women in public office above 10.9 percent, corruption declined by 10 percent.
Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who as Indonesia’s first woman finance minister earned a reputation as a tough reformer, agrees that at the grassroots level, more women in government can have an important impact particularly on how resources are allocated.
Women think of the welfare of children first and whether they have enough food to feed the family, whereas men can be less sensitive to public needs and serve their own interests, she said. “They are just being comfortable among themselves and are not having other views,” she said.
At the national level, however, Indrawati and other experts said the impact of more women in power was less clear and it is too simplistic to say women clean up government.
Today, women hold a record 20.2 percent of seats in national legislatures, more than double their number in 1987, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Rwanda for example allots half its parliamentary seats to women.
Despite these gains, corruption is scarcely in retreat.
A Gallup poll of 140 countries released in May found that two-thirds of adults worldwide believed corruption was widespread in business and in their countries. Widely watched governance indicators from the World Bank likewise show that the number of countries that have improved their corruption scores is roughly similar to those that have deteriorated.
Helen Clark, who served nine years as prime minister of New Zealand, said there is no specific proof that women are any less corrupt than men. Instead, integrity may be more a function of opportunity and the way society operates than of gender, she said. “There is a growing body of evidence that corruption operates in specific political and social networks to which women do not usually have access — particularly when women are new to positions of power,” said Clark, who is the first woman to head the UN Development Program.
A new study titled “Fairer Sex or Purity Myth?” by researchers at Rice University and Emory University lends support to the idea that it is institutional structures that matter most, and that women’s political gains are a result.
The report found that in autocratic regimes with strong male hierarchies, more women in power had little measurable impact on corruption, but that in more open, democratic political systems the change was noticeable.
The researchers speculated that the difference may be partially because women are less apt to take risks. They cite two different behavioral studies from 2003 and 2008 that show women are just as ready as men to take bribes, but they are more cautious if there is a good chance they will be caught.
In autocratic regimes, women are more likely to have gained power through male patronage, and if corruption is the norm within the male hierarchy, women are less likely to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, they said.
The opposite happens in open and democratic governments. The risk of getting caught is higher where the legal system functions well, and where voters are more likely to punish corruption at the polls. Because they tend to be risk-averse, women are doubly cautious, they said.
This could help explain why corruption in a patriarchal culture like India remains so pervasive despite women’s increased political participation, while in open and transparent Nordic countries it is low.
Indeed, a new UN study examining 3,000 elected women and men in Indian villages noted that the social and cultural environment does play a powerful role. If women face low levels of literacy, poor training, a large housework burden, live in male-dominated societies and are financially and socially dependent on fathers and husbands, public positions for women have less impact on corruption and governance.
Lavina Banduah, executive director of the Sierra Leone branch of Transparency International, which watches out for graft worldwide, sees the problem daily in her country, which ranks high for corruption and low for accountability on governance indicators. “Women cheat other women,” Banduah said. “In the marketplace, it is women who are using the dubious means and weighting the scales.”