Corruption and women's participation in public life and politics

Does women's representation in public life lead to less corruption?

Several studies looking at the correlation between levels of corruption and women's representation in politics found that corruption tends to be lower in countries with a greater share of women occupying political positions[1]. Some policy-makers have concluded that promoting women's participation in the labour force as well as in political and public life is likely to reduce corruption. However, the evidence remains largely inconclusive as to whether women in leadership positions are inherently less corrupt than men, pointing to other factors such as the political and institutional context, culture and gender inequalities for explaining the linkages between female representation and levels of corruption.

Correlation does not imply causation. Some scholars argue that democratic institutions, which provide more effective checks on corruption, are the missing link between women's participation in public life and lower corruption levels, as they prevent corruption while promoting gender equality at the same time[2]. "Fairer" systems and institutions may be the driving force between both women's participation in public life and the control of corruption.

Evidence supports this hypothesis since countries that have made advances in gender equality generally experience lower levels of corruption[3]. Several studies analysing the relationship between social indicators, political representation and corruption find that corruption is higher in countries where social institutions deprive women of their freedom to participate in social and public life.

Social institutions and political regime may also play a critical role in shaping gender attitudes and behaviour with regard to the tolerance of corruption. One study argues that as women feel greater pressure to conform to existing political norms about corruption, they are less likely to tolerate corruption in a democratic context where corruption is condemned than in more autocratic contexts, where corruption seems to be more accepted as a way of doing business[4].

The cultural context is also likely to shape attitudes and behaviour towards corruption. Australian women have been found to be less tolerant of corruption than Australian men[5]. However, such findings were not confirmed in India, Indonesia and Singapore, suggesting that gender attitudes towards corruption may not be universal but could be culture or context specific[6]. The review of evidence tends to suggest that the broader cultural, social and institutional context, in which female and male politicians operate profoundly and asymmetrically, affect the relationship between gender and corruption in global politics[7].

Or do women have fewer opportunities to be corrupt?

Integrity may be more a function of opportunity rather than gender. Gender relations may limit women's opportunities to engage in corruption and there is little evidence that women would act in a less corrupt manner if they could access high-level decision-making or management positions in the public and the private sectors. Women are traditionally underrepresented in male-dominated interactions where corruption occurs, such as commerce and politics and, in many countries, interactions of citizens with public officials in general.[8] Since industrialisation, men have dominated the public sphere, while women have been restrained to their role as housewife and mother in the domestic sphere. Due to socially prescribed gender roles, women's dealings are often focused outside the formal economy, limiting their interaction with corruption. As women lack access to resources, they may also be less targeted by demands for bribes and less likely to indulge in corrupt transactions. For example, findings from the 2015 Global Corruption Barometer indicate that, apart from when accessing court services, African women are less likely than men to have paid pay bribes in accessing most public services.[9]

Some authors also argue that, as newcomers into the political or business arena, they are also less familiar with the rules of illicit transactions, and inexperience may also limit their ability to engage in corrupt transactions. There is, therefore, no evidence to suggest that women will not take advantage of opportunities to participate in corruption as they enter the workforce or take up more senior management positions[10]. As a result, anti-corruption approaches based on recruiting more women into government could only have a short-term effect on corruption in democracies, and these are likely to fade as women became more firmly integrated into insider political and economic networks.

Supporting women's participation in public life should therefore be pursued and promoted as an essential right and not as an anti-corruption imperative or strategy. This is all the more important as women have fewer opportunities to participate in public life and influence policy-making; they largely rely on policies designed by men to address their specific needs. In Scandinavian countries, for example, studies show that where women participation has been high (30 per cent) for quite a period of time, public policies become more responsive to their policy concerns, such as social, family or gender equity.[11]


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