WASHINGTON: It is almost a cliche that getting more women into power is a good way to tackle corruption. Women, the argument goes, are less likely to take bribes or put personal gain before public good.
But is it true?
While many bristle at the suggestion that women are the “fairer sex,” considering it simplistic and even sexist, a growing body of research hints that the ascent of women might indeed help dent corruption. A deeper look shows the connection between gender and corruption is more complex than the cliche suggests.
It is not that women are purer than men or immune to the pull of greed. Rather, the link appears to be that women are more likely to rise to positions of power in open and democratic political systems, and such societies are generally more intolerant of wrongdoing, including the abuse of power and siphoning off of public money.
“It’s not about having more women in politics and saying, ‘Ah, that will change everything,’” said Melanne Verveer, US ambassador for global women’s issues. “It’s about changing the gender imbalance and then we could do a better job of tackling our problems. From what we can glean, you can tell this would have a salutary effect.”
So it might not be a direct cause, but anecdotal evidence would seem to support the view that with more women in public office the quality of government improves, and with that. corruption falls.
In Lima, Peru, for instance, a field study by Sabrina Karim found that public perceptions of whether bribery was a major problem among traffic police had plummeted in 2012 compared with 14 years earlier.
The change came after recruiting 2,500 women to patrol the streets.
A separate public opinion survey showed 86 per cent approval for the job done by female traffic officers.
From the point of view of the female traffic police, Karim, now a doctoral candidate at Emory University, found that 95 per cent of those surveyed thought the presence of women on the force had reduced corruption and 67 per cent believed women were less corrupt.
Mexico has copied Lima and introduced women officers as a way to tackle corruption. India also has seen changes since a 1993 law reserved 30 per cent of seats on village councils for women.
The World Bank’s annual World Development Report this year credited this change for increasing the provision of clean water, sanitation, schools and other public goods in the villages, and for lower levels of corruption.
The World Bank report found that bribes paid in Indian villages headed by women were 2.7 to 3.2 percentage points lower than in those led by men.
When men control all the levers of power, researchers say, money is more likely to be invested in big-ticket construction projects such as road building where corruption is rife, rather than in schools or clinics.
Breaking the old boy’s network
Mahnaz Afkhami, who was minister of state for women’s affairs in Iran from 1975 to 1978, thinks raising women's voices can have a significant impact on the quality of government.
“There is a direct relationship between the level of democracy and the presentation of women in leadership and the quality of governance,” said Afkhami. “They are not part of the old boy’s network and they are less willing to take for granted that this is the way things are done,” she said.
Afkhami is now president of Women’s Learning Partnership, a training and advocacy center for women leaders based in Maryland. During her tenure in Iran, she oversaw women gaining equal rights to divorce, support for employment, maternity leave and childcare.
In Nicaragua, a councilman soliciting sex in return for metal roofing for her home prompted Aurora Arauz to run for a seat on the municipal council.
Arauz was president of a women’s cooperative and trained in her legal rights, so she filed a police complaint when the council member sought a sexual bribe, the UN Development Programme reported in a study published in October on women’s perceptions of corruption.
The council threw the man off the body and held a special meeting to improve services for women, including naming Arauz as a women’s coordinator.
All these examples reinforce an influential World Bank study in 1999, which found that for every standard deviation point increase in women in public office above 10.9 per cent, corruption declined by 10 per cent.
Not that simple
Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who as Indonesia’s first woman finance minister earned a reputation as a tough reformer, agrees that at the grassroots level, more women in government can have an important impact particularly on how resources are allocated.