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Gender and Corruption

Gender and corruption is a surprisingly recent issue in anti-corruption scholarship. The first wave of research into the gendered dimensions of corruption focused on whether women are more or less corruptible than men, and whether the promotion of women in public life can be an effective anti-corruption strategy. A second line of enquiry examined the impact of corruption on women as a group, building on the growing evidence that corruption has a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups in society. Both of these strands of research have already generated a wealth of policy-relevant insights that advance our understanding of the interplay between corruption and gender.

Are Women Less Corrupt than Men?

Several early, mainly econometric contributions to this discussion claimed that there is indeed a link between higher representation of women in government and lower levels of corruption. An influential study of 150 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia by the World Bank, for example, came to the conclusion that women are more trustworthy and less prone to corruption, a finding later corroborated by additional research from the World Bank.2

However, the concept that women inherently possess greater integrity has been challenged. Anne Marie Goetz argues that this idea fails to account for the ways in which gender relations may limit women’s opportunities to engage in corruption, particularly when corruption functions through all-male networks and forums from which women are excluded.3

It has also been argued that liberal democratic institutions which provide more effective checks on corruption are also ‘fairer systems’ that promote gender equality. Therefore, they provide a better explanation for the co-existence of higher female representation and less corruption.4

Regardless of whether a causal relationship can be established between greater presence of women in public life and lower levels of corruption, a number of interesting differences in attitudes and behaviour with regard to corruption have been empirically confirmed. Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, an annual survey of more than 60,000 households in 60+ countries has consistently found that women are less likely than men to pay bribes.5 These results reinforce findings by Swamy et al. who analysed gender differences in attitudes about the acceptability of different forms of corruption. The authors found that women are less involved in bribery, and are less likely to condone bribe taking, leading to the conclusion that there is a worldwide “gender difference in tolerance for corruption”.6

Some scholars have suggested that women and men relate to corruption differently due to differences in risk-taking behaviour. It is hypothesised that women’s particular role in society, which entrusts them with the care of children and elders in the family, makes them more averse to risk. Therefore, in professional settings they are less likely to engage in corruption for fear of being caught and losing their jobs.7 Laboratory corruption experiments confirmed this hypothesis, finding that women tend to react more strongly to the risk of detection.8

Research Reveals Gendered Differences in Impact of Corruption

According to a 2008 report by UNIFEM, women are more vulnerable to the impact of corruption than men. This is particularly true of corruption in public service delivery. As women form a larger proportion of the poor and take primary responsibility for child care, they are more reliant on freely provided public services. As a result,  corruption in public service delivery has a disproportionate impact on women.9

Let’s take the health sector, for example. Women have differentiated and greater needs for health services - they are exposed to greater health challenges in their reproductive years, including risks of more frequent and potentially more dangerous interventions than men, and need special care during pregnancy and delivery. Studies conducted in Bangalore, South India, indicated that one out of two women in maternity hospitals had to pay extra money for a physician to be present at birth. After childbirth, the research found that a staggering 70% of patients were asked to pay to see their own babies.10

Corruption can also have gender-specific manifestations. For example, women and girls are often subjected to sexual extortion in lieu of bribes to get access to schooling or for good grades.  A study in Botswana found that 67 % of girls reported sexual harassment by teachers. This has grave consequences - 11 % of the girls surveyed seriously considered dropping out of school due to harassment and 10 % consented to sexual relations for fear of reprisals.11

Women also form a larger portion of refugees in post-conflict countries or in cases of natural disaster. According to UNFPA, women and children form 75 to 80% of refugees and displaced populations. Since aid workers are often men, this creates ample opportunities for abuse of entrusted power and many cases have been documented around the world of sexual exploitation of displaced women at the hands of male aid workers.12

Tackling the Gendered Effects of Corruption: The Research Agenda

The state of research on gender and corruption clearly indicates: the gendered dimensions of corruption are complex issues. Understanding the role of women in corruption or assessing its impact needs to be examined with close attention to the socio-economic and cultural norms that shape how women live their lives.

Lack of such understanding can lead to policy interventions that are too narrowly construed, as was the case with efforts in the early 2000s to promote women in anti- corruption agencies as they were thought to be less corrupt.13 While participation of women in anti-corruption initiatives is an important goal it should not be seen as a panacea. Policy interventions need to take into account the particular circumstances of women in these societies and the barriers to real decision-making power, both in its gender and broader institutional-political dimensions.

Stronger linkages need to be made between existing scholarship on gender, development and anti-corruption. A large and growing body of research already exists that examines gender equity and women’s participation in governance. However, corruption is often neglected as a barrier to achieving these goals. At the same time, anti-corruption research needs to more explicitly recognise and mainstream gender as a serious obstacle in the fight against corruption.

There is currently a great need for more gender disaggregated corruption data, both to better understand how corruption affects women and the role they can play in combating it.  In addition, measurements of corruption may also need to expand their scope of analysis to include sexual exploitation, which is a specific form of corruption that only women experience.  Only with the help of such comprehensive and in-depth research can we hope to eliminate the barriers corruption imposes on gender equity, and ultimately, on development.   


  1. Mason and King, Engendering development through gender equality in rights, resources, and voice, World Bank Report No. 21776 (2001).
  2. David Dollar et al,  Are Women Really the Fairer Sex? Corruption and Women in Government, World Bank Working Paper Series No. 4 (1999); Swamy et al, Gender and Corruption,  IRIS Centre Working Paper No. 232 (1999).
  3. Anne-Marie Goetz, Political Cleaners: How Women are the New Anti-Corruption Force. Does the Evidence Wash? (2004) Available online at:; Vivi Alatas et al, Gender, Culture, and Corruption: Insights from an Experimental Analysis, Southern Economic Journal , Vol. 75, No. 3 (2009).
  4. Sung, Hung-En, ‘Fairer Sex or Fairer System? Gender and Corruption Revisited’, Social Forces, Vol. 82, No. 2  (2003).
  5. TI, 2009 Global Corruption Barometer, (Berlin: TI, 2009), online at:
  6. Swamy et al, Supra
  7. Waly Wane, Informal Payments and Moonlighting in Tajikistan's Health Sector, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series, No. 4555 (2008).
  8. Maria Rivas, An Experiment on Corruption and Gender, online at:
  9. UNIFEM, Who Answers to Women? Gender and Accountability, Progress of the World’s Women Report 2008 / 2009
  10. Gita Sen and Piroka Ostin, Unequal, Unfair, Ineffective and Inefficient: Gender Inequity in Health: Why it exists and how we can change it, Report of the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health (2007); U4 Expert Answer: Gender and Corruption, online at:
  11. U4, Corruption in the Education Sector:  Common forms of corruption, U4 Resource Centre, online at:
  12. UNFPA, Protecting Women in Emergency Situations, UNFPA, online at::
  13. Dollar et al, Supra; Haitian Women Fight against Corruption, USAID Press Release, online at:



Author : Farzana Nawaz

12 Feb 2010

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