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date: 29 March 2017

Gender, Politics, and Corruption

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

It is widely recognized that corruption, or the act of using public power for private ends, can be a major destructive force for humans and human societies. Research has shown that corruption is one of the most detrimental factors currently afflicting the economies of developing countries. It undercuts various dimensions of human well-being such as health, access to clean water, and education; and it negatively affects subjective dimensions of life such as self-reported well-being and happiness.

Against the backdrop of corruption as a major destructive force, researchers at the World Bank in the late 1990s started to explore new directions in research such as the relevance of the gender perspective. In a groundbreaking study, David Dollar and his colleagues demonstrated that higher rates of female participation in government are associated with lower national levels of corruption. They measured corruption, using data from the International Country Risk Guide, and included a broad range of variables in their analysis to control for various underlying institutional characteristics that could be responsible for a spurious correlation. In a follow-up study, Anand Swamy presented a more comprehensive empirical analysis, but most importantly, a more elaborated theoretical framework. Swamy and colleagues suggested that women may follow laws to a greater extent than men because they feel protected by them. Girls may be brought up to have higher levels of self-control than boys, which may prevent them from engaging in criminal acts. For women in power, the most important argument for why an increased number of women in government would affect corruption is that women might lower corruption levels, not only by being less involved in corrupt behavior themselves, but also by initiating policies to fight corruption or to recruit staff who are less corrupt.

The initial studies spurred a heated debate on direction of causality—what affects what—and after more than a decade of research on gender and corruption, it is clear that the link between the two factors is complex. For example, the relationship between levels of women in government and levels of corruption appears in democracies but not in authoritarian states. Moreover, the expected pattern, that a high share of women is related to low levels of corruption, appears in analysis that focuses on the proportion of women in elected assemblies, such as national parliaments, but not in analysis that focuses on the proportion of women in the bureaucracy, that is in positions related to the implementation of policies. There is also considerable subnational variation in levels of corruption and in the share of women in elected assemblies. Studies elaborating on the gender perspective also show the need for reconsidering the definitions of corruption; women are particularly vulnerable in transactions that include sexual “services.”