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Theories explaining the gender-corruption nexus


To explain the correlations that have been discovered between gender and corruption, various theories on the gender-corruption nexus have been proposed. To date, the main areas of discussion on the topic of gender and corruption include: 1) socialization; 2) risk-appetite; 3) opportunities for corruption; 4) gender quotas; 5) the role of women; 6) institutions; and 7) context. These explanations are crucial in the evolving debate on how gender influences corruption and why.


The first and most common explanation for the gender-corruption nexus focuses on the differences in gender role socialization (Dollar, Fisman and Gatti 2001; Swamy and others, 2001). Proponents of gender role socialization focus on the ways in which girls tend to be more "other-regarding" and caring than boys, and thus, as women, are predisposed to supporting and engaging in more pro-social behaviour. Gilligan (1982) proposes that there are gendered differences as to whether empathy and compassion are prioritized versus notions of justice-based morality. For a related discussion on the ethics of care and feminism, see Module 9 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics. By extension of this concept, women tend to be less selfish, and more trustworthy, charitable, public-spirited and altruistic than men (Boehm, 2015). Furthermore, as mothers who typically take on more unpaid domestic work than men, women tend to be driven by values and norms rather than by material gain, and as a result can, overall, be less prone to dishonest behaviour and corruption. A version of this argument is advanced in Rheinbay and Chêne (2016) who highlight empirical evidence that explains the differences in the way "men and women perceive, experience and tolerate corruption" (see the 2016 Gender and Corruption Topic Guide by Transparency International for more information). These arguments follow a similar logic found in the discourse on women in leadership roles, which draws on empirical findings (albeit contested) to demonstrate the ways in which women can make more transformational, proactive, relational leaders than men (Eagly, and others, 2003). In the corruption debate, the implication of these empirical findings is that, as a result of socialization, women are often less prone to corruption than men.

Risk appetite

The second explanation focuses on the differences between men and women in terms of risk aversion and reciprocal behaviour. Previous research has focused on gender as a variable to explain and predict women's involvement in crime relative to men (see Bennett, Farrington and Huesmann, 2005; Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). In terms of the gender-corruption nexus, Croson and Gneezy (2009) suggest that women are on average more risk-averse than men (company managers being one exception).

Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that women seem to be more sensitive to social cues, less competitive and more inclined to cooperate, but that they are also generally less trusting, espouse more flexible ethical standards, and may more likely than men refrain from norm-breaking behaviour for fear of adverse consequences and punishment (Esarey and Chirillo, 2013; Esarey and Schwindt-Bayer, 2018). Relatedly, Rheinbay and Chêne (2016, p. 5) have pointed out that women are punished more severely than men for their involvement in corruption cases. This inevitably influences the likelihood of women to engage in corruption.

In a field experiment in Burkina Faso, in which subjects did not know they were participating, Armantier and Boly (2011) found that women were more prone to accept a bribe when they did not fear detection. Consistent with the finding that women are more risk-averse than men, controls seem to have a greater deterrent effect on women. Schulze and Frank (2003) found that men and women were equally likely to accept a bribe when no controls were in place, but women were less likely to accept bribes in cases where controls were in place. Overall, it is suggested that women are less likely than men to engage in corrupt acts, particularly when the risk of exposure and punishment is high.

Opportunities for corruption and networks

A third explanation is that women may have fewer opportunities for corruption than men. Many acts of corruption are committed in economic or political contexts to which women historically have had less access. Hossain, Musembi and Hughes (2010, p. 22) note that often corrupt activities thrive in networks that are predominantly male, and to which women have less access, particularly where the networks are established and there is no kin relationship between men in the network and women. Furthermore, corruption flourishes in networks where there is trust. As relative newcomers to corruption networks, women may therefore help to disrupt existing networks and possibly decrease corruption over the short term (Hossain, Musembi and Hughes, 2010, p. 22). For example, a Transparency International practical guide on land corruption in sub-Saharan Africa found that many women are excluded from land ownership, not through law but through social practice, norms and corruption (Raab, 2017). In the long run, however, it is important to consider whether women might eventually adopt the network's corrupt norms as they become better integrated (Boehm, 2015). As women's access to corrupt networks increases, they may not continue to have an inhibiting effect on corruption.

In keeping with this line of thought, there are examples of women engaging in corruption when they have opportunities to do so. A recent example is the college admissions scandal in the United States where several Hollywood actresses and their partners were accused of paying bribes and obtaining falsified test results to secure places for their children in prestigious universities (see the 2019 CNN report for more detail). This case challenges assumptions that women are less corrupt than men and provides an example of a case where women and their partners were accused of corruption. More research needs to consider cases in which women are involved in corruption and the opportunity structures or kin networks that may help facilitate these cases. Furthermore, when discussing opportunities to engage in corruption, it is important to consider the differing shaming mechanisms and punishments that women and men receive for corruption. As noted above, it has been shown that women are punished more severely than men for engaging in corruption. Such differences in social repercussions and deterrence mechanisms will assumedly influence the inclination of men and women to pursue opportunities for corruption.

In recent years, the field of gender and corruption has increasingly explored the idea that women are less involved in corrupt transactions than men, rather than altogether less corrupt (Esarey and Chirillo, 2013; Esarey and Schwindt-Bayer, 2017). Continuing to question the gendered opportunities and structures surrounding corruption may offer new insights into the gender-corruption nexus.

Lastly, when considering corrupt networks, several research studies suggest that even when opportunities for corruption exist, women may still be less reliable partners in corruption than men. This was confirmed by Lambsdorff and Frank (2011), who demonstrated that female public servants are less likely than men to respond to bribes with favours and thus are comparatively unappealing partners in corruption. Rivas (2013) conducted an experiment which found that women were significantly more likely to behave opportunistically, accepting bribes without providing a corresponding favour. This experiment also found that men were more likely than women to offer higher bribes (i.e. more money), and that both men and women offered higher bribes to public officials when the latter were male. The findings of these experiments suggest that increasing the participation of women in government and the labour force might help disrupt corrupt networks in the short term and possibly the long term.

Gender quotas and corruption

Gender quotas which increase women's numerical representation in organizations, including and in public office, have been linked to lower levels of corruption. Raising the number of women in the public domain and leadership positions has been suggested as a means of improving accountability systems, positively influencing organizational culture, and reducing corruption or improving perceptions of trust in public office (Stensöta, Wängnerud and Svensson, 2015). Empirical findings drawing on data from 38 countries in Asia indicate that "an increase in women's participation in politics could reduce corruption levels in Asian countries" (Paweenawat, 2018, p. 27). It is unclear, however, whether women's participation in the public domain reduces corruption, or whether less corruption creates more opportunities for women to enter politics and business (Barnes and Beaulieu, 2014).

New research is increasingly considering the associations between better governance and lower levels of corruption, on the one hand, and women's rights and participation in public life on the other hand (Rheinbay and Chêne, 2016, p. 4). Accordingly, as discussed in further detail below, international organizations as well as scholars, practitioners and policymakers are supporting gender mainstreaming (particularly in senior, formal leadership positions) as a means to reduce and prevent corruption in organizations.

Role matters

The roles that women play in society are increasingly being considered as the factor which affects the prevalence of corruption. Women politicians, for example, may have a greater effect on corruption compared to women in other roles. Women are a diverse group with differing attitudes towards corruption and rules. Consequently, their roles should be carefully considered as a variable in research studies on gender and corruption. For instance, female company managers are greater risk takers than the average woman. This suggests that role might intersect with gender in explaining gender differences in corruption research.

While the direction of causality between women in leadership roles and lower levels of corruption remains unclear, some studies suggest that women policymakers tend to be better equipped to drive policies that redress gender inequality and advance the rights of vulnerable groups such as women and children (Jha and Sarangi, 2018). This is consistent with earlier findings that women in parliament can display more progressive values and be more supportive of diversity and gender equality than men (Gouws and Kotze, 2007). Similarly, women in public office in countries with greater gender equality may be better positioned to promote policies consistent with public goods (Bauhr, Charron and Wängnerud, 2018; Kubbe and Engelbert, 2018).

A study by Jha and Sarangi (2018), which aimed to analyse whether women in politics and decision-making positions influence the levels of corruption in society, found that women have the effect of systematically reducing levels of corruption "only if they are represented in parliaments, implying that the effect on corruption is possibly through policy making". Women in elected assemblies, however, are generally not a homogenous group and will not necessarily curb corruption or enhance (let alone understand) the experiences of all women just because they are women. Most women elected to public office are typically economically (and perhaps socially) better off than most of the society they represent. They may have no notion of the specific needs and experiences of women in poverty-stricken areas or women living with disabilities. Furthermore, women's participation in parliament will not eliminate or prevent the forming of networks within and outside parliament (see, e.g., Johnson, Einarsdóttir and Pétursdóttir, 2013).

In her study on women engaged in illicit cross-border trading in Senegal, Howson (2012, p. 421) demonstrates the ways in which gender and class affect access to corrupt networks, including "geographic and socio-economic affinity with customs officers, state representatives and well-connected transporters". Thus, it is important to recognize that women overall will have varying attitudes towards corruption and rules, as well as different opportunity structures, and therefore their role in society must be considered.

Research on the influence of the role of women largely converges on the conclusion that the advancement of women to public leadership positions could result in policies that are more conducive to corruption mitigation. Researchers of corruption and gender are increasingly recognizing the importance of studying the intersections of gender with different dimensions such as sexuality and identity, educational backgrounds, socioeconomic class, as well as culture and context (see, e.g., this OECD research paper by Sim and others, 2017).

It should further be noted that empowering women in a variety of roles (not omitting that of motherhood) has proved to be vital in furthering good governance. Motivated by the contribution they are making, many women, both urban and rural, who are given opportunities for education and spaces for voicing their views, choose to make economic sacrifices so that they can continue to support the development of their communities. These more silent yet impactful contributions shape the attitudes and values of the next generation of women and men who might then go on to occupy governance and other influential roles (see this report from theBahá'íInternational Community website, 2018) .

Institutions matter

The institutional structures surrounding gender and corruption should also be considered. Sung (2003) argued that the association of gender equality and lower levels of corruption might be caused by other unaccounted for variables such as the rule of law, freedom of the press, level of democracy and changes in women's participation over time. However, he found no significant relationship between gender and corruption when controlling for these variables.

The nature and structure of an institution (in this case a government) can mediate the relationship between gender and corruption (Stensöta, Wängnerud and Svensson, 2015). Studies focusing on the differences within and between democracies tend to show that the link between gender and corruption appears in some settings but not in others. Esarey and Chirillo (2013, p. 362), for example, found that increasing the number of women in public office had variable effects on the prevalence of corruption, but that democratic institutions "activate the relationship between gender and corruption" in a way that autocratic institutions do not.

A key finding of Stensöta, Wängnerud and Svensson (2015, p. 494) was the following:

The relationship between gender and corruption varies within countries depending on whether the institutional arena of the legislative or the institution of the bureaucratic administration is examined … the curbing effect of women representatives on corruption is greater in the electoral than in the bureaucracy arena.

The implication of such research is that it is important to distinguish between institutions and contextual factors when making general claims about the relationship between gender and corruption. 

New explanations: Context matters 

More recent and nuanced research illustrates the complex relationship between corruption, gender and other variables such as culture, institutions, and the nature of the political system (Debski and others, 2018; Stensöta, Wängnerud and Svenssons, 2015; Sung, 2003). This line of research stems from a concern that even if there is a correlation between gender and corruption, there are other variables at play which need to be explored to understand whether gender can mitigate corruption - and, if so, why and how.

In many cases, contextual social factors appear to be the main cause of the differences in corrupt behaviour and are more important than the gender of the participants. That said, it is important to exercise caution when generalizing empirical findings, as it is unlikely that women surveyed are truly representative. For example, empirical research on corruption and women in rural, poverty-stricken areas is extremely rare (Hossain, Musembi and Hughes, 2010, p. 8). As the research on the gender-corruption nexus continues to evolve, it must explore numerous contexts and a multiplicity of topics. Moreover, contextual factors such as institutions and the role of women should be accounted for in future studies that investigate correlations between gender and corruption.

Next: Gendered impacts of corruption
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