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date: 12 December 2017

Summary and Keywords

It is widely recognized that corruption, or the act of using public power for private ends, is 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 further 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.

It was against the backdrop of corruption as a major destructive force that 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 their groundbreaking study, “Are Women Really the Fairer Sex? Corruption and Women in Government,” Dollar and 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 they 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, Swamy, in 2001, presented a more comprehensive empirical analysis, but most importantly, also 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. Further, 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 in government would affect corruption was 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 the direction of causality—what effects 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 focusing on the proportion of women in elected assemblies, such as national parliaments, but not in analysis focusing on the proportion of women in the bureaucracy—that is in positions related to the implementation of policies. There is also considerable subnational variation both 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 including sexual “services.”

Keywords: corruption, quality of government, gender, institutions, mediating factors

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