Washington - 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
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% 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% of those surveyed thought the presence of women on the force had
reduced corruption and 67% 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% 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.
Breaking the old boy's network
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
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%, corruption declined by 10%.
Not that simple
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% 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
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
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,
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