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Gender, Politics, and Corruption

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


Corruption, often defined as “the misuse of public office for private gain,” can be considered a major destructive force for humans and human societies. Research has identified corruption as 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, as well as negatively affecting subjective dimensions of life such as self-reported well-being and happiness (Treisman, 2007; Holmberg & Rothstein, 2012).

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 et al. (2001) demonstrated that higher rates of female participation in government were associated with lower national levels of corruption. Corruption was measured through data from the International Country Risk Guide, and the authors included a broad range of control variables in their analysis, such as underlying institutional characteristics that could have been responsible for a spurious relationship. In a follow-up study, Swamy et al. (2001) presented a more comprehensive empirical analysis, but most importantly, also a more elaborated theoretical framework. They suggested that women might follow laws to a greater extent than men because they feel protected by these laws. Girls may further be brought up to endorse higher levels of self-control than boys, which might prevent them from engaging in criminal acts such as corruption. With regard to women in power, the most important argument, according to Swamy et al., 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 less corrupt staff members.

The initial studies spurred a heated debate on the 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 (Esarey & Chirillo, 2013). 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 as strongly in analysis focusing on the proportion of women in the bureaucracy—that is, in positions related to the implementation of policies (Stensöta et al., 2015a). There is also considerable subnational variation, both in levels of corruption and in the share of women in elected assemblies (Sundström & Wängnerud, 2016). Studies elaborating on the gender perspective also show the need to reconsider the definitions of corruption: women are particularly vulnerable in transactions including sexual “services” (Towns, 2015).

Reviewed here is research on the relationships between gender and corruption at both the individual and aggregate level, and a distinction is made between mechanisms related to internalized behavior versus mechanisms related to an active choice. The interaction between the individual and the aggregate level is discussed, highlighting the need for a strengthened institutional perspective in research on gender and corruption. In contemporary political science, institutions are generally comprehended as being impinged on by norms that mediate actors’ behavior (March & Olsen, 1989). This review of research demonstrating that institutions affect how the relationship between gender and corruption unfolds discusses institutions on a general societal level, such as welfare state arrangements and regime type (democracies versus authoritarian regimes). Also discussed is the mediating power of institutions, such as bureaucracies versus elected assemblies, and a beginning effort is made to clarify how norms and logics within these different spheres of decision making affect the actors, women and men, within them. It is in the research focusing on interactions between individuals and institutions that decisive progress can be made.

Gender and Corruption at the Individual Level

A bird’s-eye view of the literature yields two types of individual-level mechanisms in research that tries to explain the relationship between gender and corruption—that is, that women, on average, are less involved in corrupt transactions than men. As previously discussed, some research proposes internalized behavior, while other research proposes an active choice. The distinction is not clear-cut but represents two rather different views on why gender matters.

Internalized behavior

Much research at the individual level is carried out through experimental designs. An overview article by Chaudhuri (2012), looking at state-of-the art of experimental findings on gender and corruption, concluded that some studies show that women are less corrupt, while others show no gender differences. However, no study shows that men are less corrupt. When experiments are directed toward the role of gender in risk-taking, however, results seem to show a more consistent gender gap. Byrnes et al. (1999) reviewed 150 studies, examining differences in risk-taking between men and women, and demonstrated that women, on average, take fewer risks than men (see also Jianakoplos & Bernasek, 1998; Watson & McNaughton, 2007). It should be noted, however, that the bulk of this research concerns financial risks and that these might have very different dynamics than transactions involving corruption. In experiments focusing explicitly on the gender and corruption nexus, risk-taking is often framed as the risk of being caught, corresponding to a comprehension of corruption as a rule- or norm-violating behavior. Schulze and Frank (2003) found no gender differences in corruptibility in nonrisk treatment but showed that women were less corruptible in risky (real-world) situations (Schulze & Frank, 2003, p. 158). In sum, these experiments indicate that women have an increased fear of punishment when there is a risk of being caught (e.g., Dreber & Johannesson, 2008; Rivas, 2013; Schulze & Frank, 2003). A related mechanism is formulated as opportunism, defining a general preparedness among women to follow whatever norms are in place (Frank et al., 2011, p. 59).

Esarey and Chirillo (2013) have elaborated a theoretical model that combines the experimental findings of women being more opportunistic with the finding in cross-country comparative research that women are less corrupt in democracies but not in authoritarian states. Their main hypothesis is that women belong to a disadvantaged group in society and therefore have a stronger self-interest in following norms than members of groups that are not discriminated against. They have argued that democracies embody a strong norm against corruption, which can account for gender differences in corruption in these countries, and concluded that no equivalent norm exists in autocracies. The proposed mechanism does not, however, consider any gender-specific structures and should therefore be applicable to other discriminated-against groups such as ethnic minorities as well. Alatas et al. (2009) conducted experiments in Australia, India, Indonesia, and Singapore, countries which they argued differ in regard to patriarchal structures, and concluded that unequal gender structures in developing countries suppress gender differences in relation to corruption, whereas the more equal gender structures of Australia allow them to emerge: “In relatively more patriarchal societies where women do not play as active a role in the public domain, women’s views on social issues may be influenced to a greater extent by men’s views” (Alatas et al., 2009, p. 678). Thus, Alatas et al. emphasized the importance of norms directly related to gender.

One way of understanding the gender differences relies on sociologically oriented explanatory models, which focus on the role of socialization. An early example is the study by Swamy et al. (2001), in which the authors propose several hypotheses to account for the correlation between gender and corruption, namely, that women are brought up to be more honest or risk averse than men; that women, who are typically involved in raising children, may “do the right thing” as role models for their children; that women may feel that laws exist to protect them—for example, criminal laws—and therefore abstain from corrupt behavior. Norms related to corruption can thus be seen as part of an underlying gender identity.

Active choice

A different underlying logic, compared to the one just discussed, is found in research on rationality. From this point of view, the extent to which one is prepared to commit a corrupt act is seen as standing in relation to the reward the individual sees as a possible result of the act. Using a cost-benefit analysis, individuals make calculations, and if the performance of a corrupt act has rewards that outweigh the perceived risks of being caught and convicted, an individual will be more likely to engage in corruption (Becker, 1968; Lee & Gluven, 2013). Following this line of reasoning, it is plausible to suggest that women and men actively may be targeting different goals and therefore behave differently. Waerness (1996) developed the reasoning on “the rationality of caring” to highlight the idea that it may be rational to strive for caregiving, and not just economic rewards or cost-effectiveness. This way of thinking is in line with discussions on prosocial behavior. In social psychology, prosocial behavior used to capture whether bystanders interfere in situations concerning unknown others. Recently, the perspective has started to include a variety of behaviors, to the benefit of unknown others and/or collective groups (Dovidio et al., 2006). Prosocial behavior is often specifically comprehended as standing against self-interest mechanisms and favoring the provision of the public good (Ledyard, 1995). There is an indication that women and men are prosocial to a similar degree but with a different emphasis: men are more associated with agential attributes, whereas women are more associated with communal attributes (Eagly, 2009). Thus far, for the present purposes, it is most important to note that prosocial behavior need not refer only to helping specific individuals, but it can also refer to actions directed toward groups, organizations, or even nations (Eagly, 2009, p. 645). In sum, the mechanisms at work, linking gender to corruption at the individual level, may be about norm-compliance and risk-aversion but may also be about calculations on costs and benefits for the group you belong to or for society at large.

Gender and Corruption at the Aggregate Level

One important distinction between the individual and the aggregate level has to do with whether corruption is conceptualized as an individual-level departure from rules and policies or as a system in its own right with norms of reciprocity (regarding favors, benefits, and turning a blind eye), heavily dependent on interpersonal relationships (e.g., Graham, 1990; Karlinks, 2005; Persson et al., 2012; Rose-Ackerman, 1999).

A Reversed Causality?

When corruption is conceptualized at the aggregate level, it becomes clear why entry into the political realm in some contexts is less a matter of merit or of promoting the most qualified candidates, and more the product of patronage exchanges, social networks, and linkages (Bjarnegård, 2013; Goetz, 2007; Stockemer, 2011). An important strand of research studies corruption as an obstacle to women’s political participation and suggests that the relationship between gender and corruption should be seen as a matter of reversed causality—that is, that corruption causes gender inequality. Bjarnegård (2013) spelled out the reasoning in the following way, highlighting the notion that women are not trusted in clientelist networks harboring sensitive exchanges:

[I]n clientelist systems, opportunities for electoral corruption are gendered in that only those with access to networks, those with connections within the local or national elite, those with resources to finance corrupt behavior, and those who are already influential in society are in positions to be considered assets in clientelist networks and are the only ones who will be trusted with the sensitive nature of the exchange.

(p. 37)

In a study of 167 regions in 18 European countries, Sundström and Wängnerud (2016) demonstrated that where levels of corruption are high, the proportion of women elected to local councils is low, and conversely, where the proportion of women is high the levels of corruption are low. Sundström and Wängnerud suggested that corruption indicates the presence of shadowy arrangements that benefit the already privileged and pose a direct obstacle to women when male-dominated networks influence political parties’ candidate selection. They also observed that a more diffuse, indirect, signal effect derives from citizens’ experiences with a broad range of government authorities; the presence of corruption is seen as a signal of “no equal treatment” that makes women, who otherwise would have stepped forward, unwilling to stand as candidates (see also Kenny, 2013). Some feminist scholars oppose myth-making about male and female natures in corruption research and instead suggest differences in recruitment to political positions as the relevant approach:

The point is that the ways women are recruited (or not) to the leadership and rank-and-file of political parties restrict their opportunities for engaging in corrupt activities. These restrictions have to do with women’s relative exclusion from male patronage networks, and the sexual danger associated with inclusion.

(Goetz, 2007, p. 99)

In sum, corruption research widely agrees that it is important to focus on corrupt subsystems, sustained by the collective action of interest groups who benefit from the corruption. The expression “old boys’ networks” is sometimes used to illustrate the persistence of these subsystems and the fact that in most countries, relatively few women occupy the most important positions of power. Thus, the main argument in this strand of research is that women are less corrupt than men because they are not, to the same extent, found in certain strata of the population. Some scholars such as Sung (2003, 2012) go as far as to altogether reject the idea of a relationship between gender and corruption; he contends, rather, that liberal democracy is the underlying factor causing both good governance and gender equality.

A Women’s Interest Mechanism?

The early studies in the area of gender and corruption did not distinguish between different spheres of society. A case in point is the study by Swamy et al. (2001) which utilized several different measures of corruption and explored the relationship to a number of different forms of participation—women as government ministers, women in national parliaments, and women in the labor force—to make a broad argument for the impact of gender. Later studies tend, however, to distinguish between different spheres of society, and there is an evolving agreement that the strongest effects of the gender factor appear in analyses focusing on the electoral arena. This has led scholars to ask questions about the precise mechanisms through which women in elected office may affect levels of corruption.

In line with research on women’s political representation, Alexander and Ravlik (2015) have coined the concept of “the women’s interest mechanism” to emphasize that some actions women in elected office may take can have important spin-off effects on society at large. In essence, the argument is that female politicians’ support of policies that improve conditions for women citizens, such as family and health policies, is especially dependent on a “state on track,” where resources are used for the public good rather than private gain. Thus, certain policy preferences among women politicians constitute an impetus to strive for a strict monitoring of the state, which, in the long run, may lower levels of corruption (Alexander & Ravlik, 2015; Jha & Sarangi, 2015). Although the causal chain outlined in this strand of research is rather long, the basic idea in studies proposing a women’s interest mechanism points in a similar direction as the mechanism on prosocial behavior discussed earlier, saying that women actively pursue certain behaviors that curb corruption. This reasoning is underpinned by a study from Brollo and Troiano (2016) that uses an objective measure of corruption based on government audits at the local level in Brazil. They showed that the probability of observing a corruption episode is between 29 and 35% lower in municipalities with female mayors than in those with male mayors. Moreover, these researchers were able to show that female mayors did a better job at providing public goods such as prenatal care delivery.

A study by Watson and Moreland (2014) brings further evidence to this strand of research. Using time-series analysis of 140 countries, from 1998 to 2011, they analyzed the relationship between women’s descriptive representation—the number of female elected representatives—with citizens’ perceptions of corruption. Their analysis largely confirms previous findings of a positive relationship between large numbers of women and low levels of corruption. What, besides the number of female elected representatives, has a positive effect in multivariate regression analysis is the substantive representation of women (that is the priority given to areas of special concern to women citizens). Watson and Moreland included measures of health expenditures and pregnancy protection as indicators of substantive representation, and their analyses demonstrate that perceptions of corruption are lower in countries with more women-friendly policies. Watson and Moreland were careful not to draw hasty conclusions, but thus far they have shown the most convincing results that changes in levels of corruption, brought about by the presence of women legislators, can be a result of substantive representation. In sum, Watson and Moreland suggested that women legislators focus on issues of particular interest to women citizens such as social spending and women’s rights. In the next step, the passing of laws about gender issues may influence citizens’ perceptions of corruption and quality of government in the broad sense, especially if the laws are designed to protect disadvantaged groups. Through experimental designs, Barnes and Beaulieu (2014) confirmed that the presence of a female candidate systematically reduced the probability that individuals would express strong suspicion of election fraud in what would otherwise be considered suspicious circumstances.

The women’s interest mechanism can also be understood as female politicians’ strategic considerations of how to (politically) survive in a context biased against them. In a study at the subnational level in Mexico, Wängnerud (2012) developed the reasoning on a rationality perspective where the point of departure is that the different positions women and men hold in society affect them in fundamental ways. Most contemporary societies are structured around sex, and that structure coincides with structures of power. The crucial question is whether this relationship means that there are particular reasons for women to abstain from corruption once they reach the electoral arena. Wängnerud referred to research (Rodríguez, 2003) showing women politicians in Mexico often have a background in social movements. The line of reasoning is as follows: To reach and uphold positions of power, women might actively seek to build alternative power bases. Democratic developments open doors for women to enter the public sphere, but women’s connections with the surrounding society might still differ from men’s. In most societies, social movements serve the role of watchdog for abuse of public office (Grimes, 2008a, 2008b). To engage in corrupt behavior would then be particularly risky for women because it could ruin their chances to gain support in future races.

Expanding the Definition of Corruption

Feminist scholars and nongovernmental organizations have pointed to the need to expand definitions of corruption from money-based forms to also include nondelivery of public services and types of “kickbacks” other than bribes. The UN Development Programme (UNDP, 2010, 2012) has noted that corruption often occurs in the form of illicit commissions at the point of procurement, which reduces the overall amount of public resources available for distribution and affects their equitable distribution among different population segments. Because in most countries women are the primary users of basic public services such as health, education, water, and sanitation, they are disproportionately affected by corruption in service delivery. When grassroots women in corrupt communities are asked about their perceptions of corruption, they tend to emphasize such nondelivery of goods and services. Moreover, when grassroots women are asked about tools to curb corruption, they cite monitoring of service delivery as one of the most important aspects (UNDP, 2012).

In a study of the implementation of welfare reforms in Mexico, Hevia de la Jara (2007, p. 87) documented cases of recipients, most of whom were women asked to do extra work for the city, that is, cleaning and sweeping streets, in order to avoid losing benefits. Goetz (2007) pointed to the sexual dangers that women in patronage networks face, and sexual abuse might be seen as a kind of kickback. Towns (2015) has picked up this thread and has developed the understanding of sexual corruption in the context of diplomacy. Diplomacy is especially interesting, since it has not been subjected to the same pressure of transparency as other state institutions. This context has served as a breeding ground for various forms of corruption. The intersection of gender/class and the comparatively unconstrained power of diplomats (immunity) is illustrated by examples of low-status female applicants providing sex to male officials in exchange for a visa.

Bringing Institutions to Research on Gender and Corruption

How can theoretical advancement be made? On the one hand, research has elaborated on individual-level mechanisms for the relationship between gender and corruption, but these studies are largely based on experimental designs and hence do not pay much attention to contextual circumstances. On the other hand, cross-country comparisons have produced knowledge about macro-level features affecting the relationship, but these studies seldom go into detail on the micro-foundations for the detected tendencies. In between these two levels of analysis, however, lie institutions, and bringing institutions to research on gender and corruption—giving them a more prominent role—would be fruitful for the development of theory. Research needs to consider how individual-level actors are affected by their institutional contexts—that is, to consider agents and institutions as well as how they interact. For the purpose of illustration, institutions can be distinguished as mediating factors at the citizen level and at the governmental level. Further, within the governmental level, it is possible to distinguish between the so-called input side of the political system, the parliament, and the output side, the bureaucracy. In each of these spheres, a specific institutional logic dominates that affects the norms and goals of the actors within them.

Defining Institutions

Institutions can be defined as the framework within which human interaction takes place (North, 1990). Although there are different subbranches of institutional theory (Hay, 2002), most of them assume that norms are attached to institutions and that these norms affect how actors within the institutions behave, including the way they perceive their goals (March & Olsen, 1989). In short, institutions prescribe the “taken-for-granted” ways of conduct within that institution.

Within feminist theory, there has been a recent advancement of feminist institutionalism that uses insights from institutional theory and applies them to the subject of gender. As the perspective captures how norms are attached to institutions, it accords with strategies to pursue gender equality that suggest focusing on norms rather than on structures (Squires, 2007). Using this line of reasoning, Hawkesworth (2005) saw feminist institutionalism as being aimed at mapping the manifold ways in which institutional processes (re)produce gendered outcomes (see also Chappell & Waylen, 2013). According to Krook and Mackay (2011), feminist institutionalism is directed at systematically identifying particular gendered institutional processes and mechanisms and their gendered effects. In practice, the field spans studies of formal institutions (Schwindt-Bayer & Squire, 2014) such as gender quotas (Franceshet et al., 2012), where the relationship to women’s substantive representation is also explored, as is the impact of femocrats—feminist bureaucrats—on public administration as well as studies of more informal institutions.

Krook and Mackay (2011) expanded further on the feminist institutionalist agenda by adding the topic of institutional change. They argued that feminist institutionalism should be engaged in “questions related to interactions between gender and institutional effects, the origins and shape of gendered institutional change and the reasons for positive outcomes in some context” (Krook & Mackay, 2011, p. 8). This leads to questions such as whether feminist actors challenge existing institutions? Mackay (2014) has suggested the concept of “nested newness,” capturing how newcomers are always embedded in the past, in order to understand the role of women in settings long dominated by men.

The Mediating Power of Institutions at the Citizen Level

Esarey and Chirillo (2013) theorized on the interplay between formal (regime-type) and informal (norms) institutions when they contended that women, as members of a disadvantaged group, have strong self-interest in following norms. Democracies contain a strong norm against corruption; women are more perceptive of this norm than men, and hence a gender difference appears in democratic states. Figure 1 illustrates the mediating power of regime type. We have used the well-renowned Economist index ( to distinguish between full democracies and nondemocratic states. The results show a clear correlation between the proportion of women in parliament and the measure Control of Corruption (World Bank) among democracies but no correlation—a flat line—among nondemocratic states. In order to understand, for example, variation within the group of democracies there is a need however to also discuss other institutions than regime-type.

Gender, Politics, and CorruptionClick to view larger

Figure 1. Comment: Data in Figure 1 reflect the situation 2014. Control of corruption is a measure produced by the World Bank where higher values mean lower levels of corruption. Information on the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments comes from Inter-parliamentary Union. The Economist index runs from 0 to 10 where values 8-10 are considered “full democracy” and 0-8 are considered “non-democratic” states (the latter category includes authoritarian regimes, hybrid states and flawed democracies). See Teorell, Jan, Stefan Dahlberg, Sören Holmberg, Bo Rothstein, Anna Khomenko & Richard Svensson. 2017. The Quality of Government Standard Dataset, version Jan17. University of Gothenburg: The Quality of Government Institute, doi:10.18157/QoGStdJan17

Policies as a Form of Institution

On one level, policies can be comprehended as institutions since they affect how gender relations are structured in everyday life. The work by Young (2002) can be used as a point of departure for such reasoning. Young suggested that there are three axes in society along which women and men have asymmetrical experiences: (1) sexual division of labor, (2) normative heterosexuality, and (3) hierarchies of power. Stensöta et al. (2015a) added to this picture by arguing that the specific ways in which these axes play out are affected by the policies in place. A typical example is “care-and-career policies,” such as parental leave and child care, which affect the possibility of successfully combining a paid career with having a family, and thus, farther down the road, affect the division of paid and unpaid labor in society.

This connects to Hernes’s (1987) research on the relation between women and the state in the Scandinavian context. Hernes argued that women have a special interest in an encompassing welfare state for two reasons; first, policies such as child care and elderly care provide women with time away from their children and other dependents, so they can actually do paid work. Second, they offer women opportunities for a career in the public sector, as the above-mentioned tasks need personnel to perform them. Hernes concluded that this interest-based relationship between women and the state caused women to develop more favorable attitudes toward the state; Hernes coined this alliance “state feminism.” Since then, the feminist debate on the welfare state has developed into the field of gender regime studies, contributing to comparative welfare state research sparked by Esping-Andersen (1990). Feminist scholars point out that welfare state institutions affect gender-based group differences. Lewis (1992) distinguished between male-breadwinner models and individual models, arguing that welfare states differ in relation to whether they address the family as a unit, assuming a main (male) breadwinner, or whether they address individuals. Moreover, Lewis argued that women’s emancipation increases when the state turns to individuals instead of families. Other scholars have followed this line of reasoning (Orloff, 1993; Sainsbury, 1996). Currently, scholars distinguish mostly between three types of welfare regimes in relation to gender: dual-earner regimes, family-support regimes, and market-oriented regimes. In sum, this literature has pointed to a number of features that are beneficial for women’s self-determination in everyday life. The most important of these features are policies enabling dual-earner careers, such as paid parental leave, public child care, and policies aimed at general instead of selective welfare (Bettio & Plantenga, 2004; Daly & Lewis, 2000; Gornick & Meyers, 2003; Ferrarini, 2006).

Against the backdrop of women’s interest in an encompassing welfare state, Stensöta et al. (2015b) examined the issue of whether policies affect the way the relationship between gender and corruption unfolds. The research builds on a scenario, embedded in a survey of approximately 85,000 EU citizens, and focuses on citizens’ preparedness not to vote for a party that has been involved in a corruption scandal. The result shows that the gender gap, with women being more inclined than men to not vote for a party that has committed corrupt acts, was largest in the most encompassing welfare states, such as Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Gender gaps were much smaller in countries such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal, where the welfare state (measured as social spending, figures from the OECD) is less encompassing, but actual levels of corruption are much higher.

Going back to the previous discussion on active choice and prosocial behavior, these results can be used to ask questions about the calculations women and men do when they are confronted with potentially corrupt transactions. It is reasonable to believe that, if the state provides policies that give women opportunities to combine care-and-career, this will affect the propensity of women to protect the state from wrongdoing. This can be comprehended as a form of rationality, where the goal is to protect the actor/institution that gives the collective—in this case, women as a group—these possibilities. Put simply, women who have experienced a well-functioning state, strengthening their self-determination, may perceive the rewards of corruption as being lower than the costs. Men, who generally are less dependent on the state for their self-determination, may arrive at a different conclusion. We would like to see further research based on the idea that women might choose not to engage in corruption, or might opt to condemn corruption more harshly, grounded in the conviction that the state offers them opportunities that they want to keep, hence protect.

Considerable research has been done on why citizens behave more or less corruptly in different countries. Of special interest for gender and corruption research are studies that try to get at feedback loops. Svallfors (2013), in a study on European countries, has shown that perceptions of the government, whether it works well or not, affect people’s trust in government, not only as an attitude, but also in the decision to support the state by paying taxes. People who perceive institutions as efficient and fair readily accept higher taxes and spending. Svallfor’s analysis shows that particularly in the Scandinavian countries, this relationship seems to form a positive feedback loop. The willingness to pay high taxes results in large revenues that in turn make it possible to actually produce good outcomes of public policies. Thus, policies, and not only formal institutions, influence the dynamics in multiple ways.

The Mediating Power of Institutions at the Governmental Level

The governmental level addresses spheres in society with some binding authority, such as legislatures and the bureaucracy. Actors at this level of society are, however, also citizens, and, therefore, one can think of these actors as “raw material” in terms of gender. The question that then arises is whether different institutions “process” gendered attributes in different ways. Based on previous research, it is best to distinguish between two types of broader institutions; in regard to the so-called output side of government, our focus is on the bureaucracy, and in regard to the so-called input side, our focus is on the electoral arena. Applying an institutional perspective, one can expect these two settings to be governed by markedly different logics that are likely to mediate the actions of individuals and thereby affect the link between gender and corruption.

The Bureaucracy

The bureaucracy can be understood as an administrative system directed to enhance the implementation of policies. The Weberian ideal type is that interactions between public officials and citizens should follow patterns described by a distinct set of rules. These types of rule-bound interactions should then replace other affinities that might come into play, such as kinship, personal preferences, and interests. “Bureaucracy,” however, is not a unitary construct but can be seen as consisting of several different dimensions when examined empirically. Rauch and Evans (2000) identified meritocratic recruitment and predictable careers as important features of well-functioning bureaucracies. Rothstein and Teorell (2008) pointed out that it is the level of impartiality in institutions that exercise government authority that distinguishes high- and low-quality bureaucracies. Dahlström et al. (2012) argued that bureaucracies should be distinguished along their level of professionalism—openness/closedness in recruitment—which more accurately reflects the idea that civil servants should be distinct from other groups such as elected politicians and should be backed up with special education/examination systems for their particular career. Taken together, these scholars, in different ways, develop an understanding of the bureaucracy as an institution in which formalized rules enforce impersonal interaction and where recruitment should be based in merit.

Translating this understanding into the area of gender and corruption, Stensöta et al. (2015a) hypothesized that the bureaucracy works to suppress gender differences in “raw material,” that is, attributes and values. The benchmark (Stensöta et al., 2015a) is the electoral arena, and the empirical analysis is conducted within the same set of European countries at the same period of time, for both the electoral arena and the bureaucracy. The European Commission (EC) offers two types of data on the share of women in administrative positions: Level 1 Administrators, measuring the highest level of administrative positions within each ministry, and Level 2 Administrators, measuring the second level of administrative positions within each ministry (data from 2005). In contrast to measures on the proportion of women in national parliaments (data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union), none of these measures on the proportion of women in the administration exerts a significant relationship to national levels of corruption. These findings corroborate the results of a study on male and female civil servants in the Ghana police service and Ghana education service, concluding that, when exposed to an opportunity for corruption, women in public office do not prove less corrupt than men (Alhassan-Alolo, 2007).

To understand the mechanisms in greater detail, Stensöta et al. (2015a) examined the interaction effects between different dimensions of the bureaucracy and the relationship between gender and corruption. The idea is the following: If we assume that the raw material that women bring into bureaucracies is basically the same, regarding what they bring into the electoral arena within a specific country, we should be able to detect that with the increasing strength of bureaucracy, the curbing effect of women on corruption disappears. The results (Stensöta et al., 2015a) indicate that low levels of closedness—measured as low levels of formal examination systems—open up for gender to have an effect, that is, for women’s curbing power of corruption to come into play. When the strength of closedness increases, the positive effect of women on levels of corruption is, however, weakened. These results indicate a need for further studies that look at interaction with various forms of real-world bureaucracies. The baseline here is the expectation that women entering institutions on the so-called output side of government should be absorbed into the taken-for-granted norms within these institutions, and thus, the gender factor should play only a limited role.

The Electoral Arena

There is, as highlighted earlier, an evolving agreement that the effects of gender on corruption are most visible in studies that focus on the electoral arena. Stensöta et al. (2015a) built on Manin (2007) to show that the dominating logic at the so-called input side of government is quite different from the logic of impersonality at the output side; in the electoral arena, the dominating logic is to stand out to others in order to attract attention, and in the long run, votes. Personal attributes may therefore be used to improve one’s visibility and reputation in the electoral arena. Thus, women candidates may, for strategic reasons, present themselves as “clean” outsiders, but they may also be driven by ideological considerations and the wish to represent disadvantaged groups such as women. Grimes and Wängnerud (2016) used previous research to abstract four potential mechanisms that are at work in the interaction between gender and the electoral arena.

First, Kostadinova and Mikulska (2015) presented evidence that populist parties in countries such as Bulgaria and Poland (both moderately affected by corruption) have recruited large numbers of women on the basis that women constitute “outsiders,” individuals who are not already tainted by the spoils of politics. They stated: “As less involved in previous governments, women were preferred for nomination, especially when male candidates with a clean record were in short supply” (Kostadinova & Mikulska, 2015, p. 10). Thus, women candidates may be looked upon by others as clean outsiders, and once elected, internalize high expectations of good behavior.

Another mechanism at work may be risk-aversion, as suggested by Esarey and Chirillo (2013) and Swamy et al. (2001). Research in a wide variety of fields, ranging from criminology and risk sociology to political psychology and risk psychology, shows that women tend to display higher levels of anxiety about both personal and social risks and threats than do men (Bord & O’Connor, 1997; Djerf-Pierre & Wängnerud, 2016; Flynn et al., 1994; Slovic, 1999). Women in elected office may actively avoid corrupt transactions and also recruit staff who are less corrupt.

A third mechanism that may be in play is the women’s interest mechanism. The idea here is a spin-off effect, that female politicians’ support of policies that improve conditions for women citizens, such as family policy and health policy, is especially dependent on a “state on track,” where resources are used for public goods rather than private gains. Thus, certain policy preferences among women politicians constitute an impetus to strive for a strict monitoring of the state, which, in the long run, may lower levels of corruption (Alexander & Ravlik, 2015; Jha & Sarangi, 2015).

Finally, in her study on women in contemporary Mexican politics, Rodríguez (2003, p. 231) finds that Mexican women candidates tend to enter the political arena after experience in some form of grassroots organization, including work at the ground level of political parties, with nongovernmental organizations, and with popular movements. This indicates that women in elected office may have a different power base, and since nongovernmental organizations in many societies serve in the role of watchdog against corruption and other malfeasances, it could be a strategic mistake for women in office to be involved in corruption; doing so could ruin their chances of gaining support in future races.

To sum up, there are a number of reasons to expect that the influx of women into the electoral arena, at least in democratic states, can affect levels of corruption. Esarey and Schwindt-Bayer (2017) proposed including electoral accountability as a new variable in the study of gender and corruption. They predicted that when electoral accountability is stronger, it enforces a stronger relationship between women’s political representation and lower levels of corruption. Including the media as forming one part of the accountability structure, they comprehend media as being biased to the disadvantage of women, that is, to judge their wrongdoings more harshly. This increases any risk on the part of women in relation to detection of corruption. Thus, several institutions are integrated into “electoral accountability,” and this proposition opens up the opportunity for even more sophisticated analysis of relationships.

In addition, “the electoral arena” is arguably a broad concept. Several possible subinstitutions can be taken into account in this decision-making sphere. Future research could distinguish institutions at the party level and discuss parties as organizations that are imbued with particular norms for conduct. Gender stereotypes, as well as the room to maneuver for women, can be of different strengths in different parties, in line with the ideology of equality. There are also other subinstitutions that could be important, for example, government auditing institutions (Gustavson, 2015) that might affect the possibilities of monitoring the state and thus could be a tool in any contestation of norms and goals regarding corruption.

Concluding Remarks

Corruption, or the act of using public power for private ends, can be considered a major destructive force for humans and human societies. In the quest to understand the mechanisms behind good government, which will most likely be an important issue for many years to come, we contend that the ways that gender plays into these dynamics should be further explored.

Research in the field of gender and corruption is expanding, and scholars with different backgrounds are contributing to this expansion. Diversity in terms of methodology, theoretical approaches, and geographical areas is necessary. However, one direction that research should take is to explore in more detail how institutional-level mechanisms mediate individual-level mechanisms, as well as how regime type influences both of these features. In sum, this means getting at the micro-foundations in greater detail and specifying the conditions under which gender may have an effect. This challenge, as shown in various publications, is best met by turning to institutional theory, which proposes that higher-level institutions are affected by norms that mediate actors’ convictions and behaviors within them. This approach is in line with feminist institutionalist research, a field that is currently being developed. More precisely, this should be explored on two levels. First, is the citizens level which captures how general institutions in a society, mediated, for example, by policies, affect general norms. Here we ground our findings that women are less tolerant of corrupt political parties and that the gender difference is especially strong in more encompassing welfare states (Stensöta et al., 2015b).

Second is the governmental level. Here, we address the large body of literature that explores the relationship between women in public office and levels of corruption (Stensöta et al., 2015a). There is an enforcing mechanism in the electoral arena, inspired by the electoral institutions, that urges candidates to “stand out.” In doing so, women candidates might use gendered attributes (the raw material of initial gender differences). Further, the institution of bureaucracy is different, and the institutional norms there are in favor of suppressing any personal affinities, or preferences, including gender differences. Thus, in order to develop understandings of the relationship between gender and corruption, one needs to take into account that actors are embedded in institutional contexts. Moreover, one needs to consider that there is not one single “gender mechanism” at work but a variety of reasons for why gender matters. This means, for example, that studies that dig deeper into concrete actions women in leadership positions may take to curb corruption need to be fairly broad; they need to look not only at attempts to targeting policies and laws, but also at attempts by women to change taken-for-granted ways of conduct within organizations that serve men as a group but not women.


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