Print Edition - 2016-06-05  |  Free the Words

Men, women and corruption

  • Is it women’s participation in politics that is reducing corruption or is higher corruption deterring women from entering politics?
- Narayan Manandhar

Jun 5, 2016-

There is a great degree of similarity between sex and corruption. Both take place in secrecy or privacy between consenting adults. However, when it comes to corruption, there is one thing that is astoundingly different. The track records of criminals everywhere tell us that there are more men than women inside a prison. Women are generally thought to be more honest and trustworthy; therefore, their increased participation in state affairs is expected to reduce corruption. 

In fact, to combat corruption, countries like Mexico and Peru are taking dramatic measures like replacing male public officials with female ones. Cross-sectional research conducted by the World Bank in early 2000 revealed a significant positive correlation between women’s participation in parliament and lower corruption. However, researchers are baffled by the direction of causality: Is it women’s representation in parliament that is reducing corruption or is higher corruption deterring women from entering politics? 

Workshop on corruption

Last month, the Quality of Governance Institute at University of Gothenburg, Sweden, organised an international workshop on gender and corruption. The purpose of the workshop was to unfold the confounding relationship that exists between gender and corruption. Speaking broadly, the workshop sought to address four questions: What is the meaning of corruption when it comes to the issue of gender?; what exact relationship exists between gender and corruption?; what do research results tell us about the relationship?; and what are the real world implications of such results? 

A total 31 participants, predominantly academics, presented 21 research papers at the workshop. Their findings drew results from specific countries, longitudinal and cross-sectional research studies. The presentations covered both theoretical arguments and empirical results. The methodologies ranged from simple descriptive case analysis and experimental surveys to sophisticated regression models. The studies were carried out in a wide variety of settings to understand gender behaviour in various contexts like different forms of corruption, at different levels of the state and bureaucracy, at different institutions covering different types of public service delivery and by different types of actors. The studies came from countries like Canada, the US, the UK, Tanzania, Nigeria, Russia, Spain, Mexico, Nepal, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Jordan. Here are some of my takes from the workshop.

Different narratives

An earlier study on gender and corruption by David Dollar in 2001 seems to have been a point of departure as well as convergence for most of the researchers. Dollar found that women’s increased participation in parliament reduces corruption. This study was later corroborated by both micro and macro studies. Some studies found out later that it was not women’s participation in parliament per se that helped in reducing corruption. Rather other factors like the level of development, democracy and accountability measures (press freedom) affect the level of corruption. Therefore, the relationship between gender and corruption is not clear-cut.

Many studies have also found causality running in reverse order—it is corruption that is deterring women from joining politics. Corruption has a negative impact not only on the poor but also on women, writes Sam Wong from Liverpool University. Therefore, fighting corruption is pro-women. Bo Rothstein, Head of the Quality of Governance Institute, posits impartiality, not impersonality, as a key to addressing the problems of gender inequality in state administration. 

In the pursuit of unfolding the relationships between gender and corruption, sextortion (sex + extortion), that is, the use of sex as a possible currency of corruption, is one area that has drawn the interest of scholars. Given that corruption is a reciprocal transaction, sex invariably becomes a part of the exchange process and the exploitation of women for sex has been historically ordained. The conventional definition of corruption as “misuse of public authority for private gain” needs to be reinterpreted when society puts male in the public domain and female in the private. (I experienced culture shock when I found unisex public toilets in Sweden, something unimaginable in Nepal.)

Hard to compare

The argument that women are the fairer sex and hence less corrupt than men does not hold water. It is neither honesty nor lack of opportunities that makes women less corrupt. Rather the risk-averse character of women seems to be the underlying factor. Keeping aside the question whether the study results could be generalised, a study on an scandal that erupted in the UK in 2009 revealed that both male and female members of parliament (MPs) responded similarly while reclaiming expenses in the context of low accountability. However, when high accountability measures were introduced in 2010, and with media coverage, female MPs behaved differently than their male counterparts. 

There are both unique advantages and disadvantages to being a woman politician. A study from Spain revealed that female politicians have a distinct electoral advantage only during the situation of “meltdown corruption” and when voters look for honest 

politicians to lead them. But cross-sectional study from East Asia and 

Latin America revealed no significant gender difference in most countries. Research from Montreal, Canada revealed that voters prefer women to men when it comes to higher standards of honesty and tend to hold a lenient attitude when women fail to attain that level of honesty. Women who try yet fail are not judged too harshly. The study of successful but isolated cases of successful women bureaucrats in Nigeria revealed “gendered stratification of patrimonial networks” rather than honesty as a factor behind their appointment and selection in the bureaucracy. Tanzania’s female quota experience comes very close to our home experience with the misuse of 33 percent reservation, that is, how the quota system was reduced to a ‘menu 

of manipulation’ by the male politicians. If the study of women in sub-national governments in Mexico revealed positive contributions including reduction in corruption, then the study from Soviet Russia revealed the opposite, implying that female engagement in politics was merely “window dressing” in a “managed democracy” of Soviet Russia. 

In 2012, after reviewing a large number of survey results and field experiments on gender and corruption, Ananish Chaudhuri concluded that as there are no studies that find men to be less corrupt than women, recruitment of more and more women will help reduce corruption. This time the study from Jordan, albeit isolated, revealed males to be less corrupt than women. The author’s reasoning is that as long as we continue to categorise males and females into separate boxes, there is no point in deducing results from gender and corruption studies. We may have one earth but we live in different worlds of our own. The comparison between males and females will be useless and misleading. 


- Manandhar is a freelance consultant

Published: 05-06-2016 08:15

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