Are women less corrupt then men?

Last week, I contributed a short piece to the Christian Science Monitor magazine cover story about women breaking through glass ceilings in politcs around the world. I live in Rwanda, the only country in the world where women hold more than the majority of seats in parliament. As I discussed this anomaly with people inside and outside Rwanda, corruption kept coming up.

There’s an idea – so I was told, and so I have also heard first hand – that women are less corrupt than their male political counterparts. Often, women’s spending decisions in the private sphere are offered as evidence of this quasi-fact: Study after study has shown if women earn the money in the family, they spend it on the family – on health care, on school fees, on food. Men…often don’t.

There’s a danger of neo-Victorianism in all this, of carving out space for women by claiming they are more virtuous than the men who have long controlled that space. Remember back when giving women the right to vote was supposed to provide a virtuous corrective for base male tendencies?

Sarah Taylor, executive director of the NGO Working Group for Women, Peace and Security at the UN, calls this anti-corruption hypothesis another “essentialist tendency” of gender conversations:

The underlying implication is men are warlike and women are more peaceful, and that’s where [we get] the idea that women are less corrupt, more nurturing, more honest, [and] men are power hungry… We need to recognize that a lot of what we assume to be “what women do” and “what men do” are really the result of centuries and centuries of cultural suppositions and barriers to both men and women.

Dinah Musindarwezo of Norwegian People’s Aid, on the other hand, sees corruption as an opportunity of the Old Boys’ Networks that women can’t access. “To be corrupt you have to be familiar with the system, comfortable with how it works and have a lot of contacts,” she says.

You also have to appear corruptible. In fact, the stereotype of women’s honesty may help keep them honest. “The perception that women are not corruptible means few people will suggest” nefarious dealings to them, she says.

And then there are the gender biases even the most powerful women in politics here can’t escape. In Rwanda, women have long held power in the private sphere; the obligations that come with that private power don’t disappear when a woman enters public life.

“In most cases, corruption doesn’t take place in office conversations,” says Musindarwezo. “If I’m a woman MP [member of parliament] and I have a child at home – has my child eaten? What did he eat? Did he do his homework?”


  • MM Jones says:

    Interesting topic, Jina.

    I wonder how much this is a case of a lack of examples of women in power. The case that first comes to mind is Ellen. What can be said with confidence at this point in her presidency is that there is no “old boys’ network” in Liberia that she does not currently have access to. To use Ms. Musindarwezo’s words, she is very much at the center of the system in Liberia, and she has roughly the same opportunities that anyone else: she has lots of contacts, and is very familiar with the system.

    The second example that comes to mind is Bhutto of Pakistan. I’m really rushing today so I don’t have time to google and footnote, but my recollection is that is was never conclusively proven that she and her husband Zadari illicitly accumulated wealth while in office, but there was lots and lots and lots of circumstantial evidence and damning press. One detail I recall is the addresses of the London townhouses she secretly purchased were published, with pictures her next to shots of Belgravia terrace houses (bringing this discussion back to Victorianism, I guess).

    • Jina Moore says:

      Ooh…interesting stuff. Yeah, in no world is EJS not an old boy, so to speak… About Bhutto I can’t say anything, I’m incredibly ignorant, but this is a worthwhile point…

      Also, I’m an idiot: Than, not then…

  • Tom says:

    The grammar police called and they want there ‘then’ back! 😉

  • Sigh.

    How about some evidence instead of anecdotes?

    Two fairly recent studies (both from 2001) seem to confirm that there is a correlation between gender and corruption:
    – Dollar, D, Fisman, R & Gatti, R 2001, ‘Are women really the “fairer” sex? Corruption and women in government,’ Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 423-429.
    – Swamy, A, Knack, S, Lee, Y & Azfar, O 2001, ‘Gender and corruption,’ Journal of Development Economics, vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 25-55.

    However, a more recent (2005) study seems to point towards no such correlation:
    – Alatas, V, Cameron, L, Chaudhuri, A, Erkal, N & Gangadharan, L 2005, Gender and Corruption: Insights from an Experimental Analysis, Research Paper number 974, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

    • Jina Moore says:

      Thanks for these. Point of professional difference, I suppose, that anecdotes are a kind of evidence — ask any trial attorney — but I appreciate this data-based evidence, which splits along the same lines — “maybe, maybe not” — that the anecdotes (not all of which are reproduced here or in the piece cited) did.

      The title of the first one — which I haven’t looked at yet — strikes me as odd. What about being less corrupt is about being “fairer”? A weird equation but I’ll look at the study before I say more.

  • MM Jones says:

    How are these studies better “evidence” than the historic precedents of what actually happens when women are in power conduct malfeasance? The abstract of the first study listed seems only assert a theoretical correlation in its findings:

    “Numerous behavioral studies have found women to be more trust-worthy and public-spirited than men. These results suggest that women should be particularly effective in promoting honest government. Consistent with this hypothesis, we find that the greater the representation of women in parliament, the lower the level of corruption. We find this association in a large cross-section of countries; the result is robust to a wide range of specifications.”

    But what has happened when females have the means and ability to actually embezzle? Are they still more public-spirited and trustworthy?

    What about the record of Presidential wives? It doesn’t prove anything, but Ms. Mugabe is pretty notorious, having assaulted a British journalist covering her shopping spree in Hong Kong:

    How about Amelda Marcos?


    • Jina Moore says:

      Is it weird that I find all this sighing inspiring? It’s like a one-word emotional code for very strong feelings, and I love strong feelings. Most of them.

      Means and ability — this is really interesting. I don’t know if it’s true that women don’t have the means/ability (networks, in the words of some folks I talked to) and I would bet it’s very context (read: country) dependent, but it’s a damn interesting question…

    • The abstract of the first study listed seems only assert a theoretical correlation in its findings:

      Not really: “We find this association in a large cross-section of countries; the result is robust to a wide range of specifications.”. For more information you should really read the full article (drawing conclusions from abstracts only is risky business). It is paywalled, but I could send a copy to Jinna for forwarding to you if you’d like me to.

      And as you say yourselves about your anecdotes: “It doesn’t prove anything”.

  • Anecdotes can be part of evidence, if they are approached with appropriate rigour. Qualitative research has a long and honourable tradition and is accepted by almost all academics — but it involves a bit more than just a couple of random (or even worse: selectively chosen) anecdotes without any thorough analysis.

    • Jina Moore says:

      Yes, yes, I agree with you about qualitative analysis — I was simply pointing out that there’s more than one professional approach to anecdotes AND evidence. Journalism doesn’t pretend to be academia. And academia also has its weaknesses. But that’s a debate for another time….

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