Gender and corruption: The time is now

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Adapted from UNODC's report cover. Image courtesy of UNODC. Adapted from UNODC's report cover. Image courtesy of UNODC.

Are women less corrupt than men? Are governments with more women in positions of power less corrupt? Are these (still) the right questions to be asking? The answer to the last question is no, but it helps to explore why these assumptions have existed and endured, and to consider other kinds of questions that have the potential to shape policies and achieve broad development impacts. A new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) does just that, and a lot more. 

The first takeaway from this report is the shocking realization that high-level attention to this topic is so long overdue. “The Time is Now: Addressing the Gender Dimensions of Corruption” provides a comprehensive view of the gendered dimensions of corruption, including important blind spots in anticorruption regulations, and explains very convincingly why achieving greater gender equity would itself help in controlling corruption. 

The report provides a short history of the now debunked idea that women are less corrupt than men. Briefly, the reason governments with more women in power are less corrupt is because these governments also have other trappings of democratic governance (free press, rule of law, free and fair elections) . Experiments and studies have now shown that ‘given the right circumstances women and men are equally prone to being corrupt.’ That may seem obvious now, but attaching innate qualities to gender identities and attributing social outcomes to these differences is as old as history and still holds sway over common sense and evidence. 

There are clear correlations between women in charge and lower levels of corruption. The key is in contextualizing the data. The World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys ( found that women-owned businesses were less likely to pay bribes. This is not because women are more likely to confront collusive arrangements or refuse to pay kickbacks. It’s because women are less likely to be members of, or trusted by, existing patronage networks (which are predominantly male). As the report explains, the social norms of groups that engage in illegal or ethically dubious activity place a premium on secrecy and predictability. And predictability relies on codes of behavior that are heavily gendered. While women could conceivably establish clientelistic networks, examples in the literature are hard to find. The more important insight from the report’s synthesis of research into gender and corruption is that clientelism is bad for women’s empowerment.

The questions we need to be asking ourselves, therefore, are whether and how women who achieve positions of power disrupt existing networks of patronage and clientelism?  What makes them (in some instances) more successful in promoting anticorruption policies that address issues that concern those with less power (including women and the poor)? Health care and education are two sectors where women tend to access services more than men and are thereby more exposed to corruption. The report cites evidence that women in Europe are 3.5 times more likely to pay a bribe to access education in states where women’s political representation is at its lowest. 

A similar correlation exists with bribery for accessing health services. Women also make up the majority of informal sector workers around the world, and informal businesses typically have to pay more bribes to corrupt networks and the police to stay in business. Incentives for formalizing the economy and for controlling corruption thus have a shared gender dimension. What can we learn from the disruptive effects of gender in politics on entrenched corruption?  On policymaking that promotes socio-economic inclusion? What additional data would be needed to answer these questions?

This report brings the gender question into the 21st century by reminding us that what corruption and gender have in common is power (access to it and the abuse of it). It also shines a light on a critically overlooked blind spot in anticorruption laws and programming: the absence of targeted regulations that prohibit and sanction the coercion of sexual favors in return for basic rights or services. These practices are not covered by sexual harassment and gender-based violence regulations since they rely on the absence of consent for prosecution. In cases of sextortion victims consent to the extortion in return, for example, of a business license, a job, turning on the water supply, or access to a university program. Research is still anecdotal but suggests that these practices are endemic, and made worse by the absence of regulations, awareness of rights, or knowledge that sextortion is corrupt and unlawful. 

This report is an invitation to the development community to contribute to the evidence base for policymaking with research and data on all the gender dimensions of corruption, and to support much needed policy reform to ensure that definitions of sexual extortion are included among sanctionable practices in anticorruption regulations. Further research in this area would need to examine disaggregated data on how corruption impacts women differently from men in key sectors, explore the nexus between improved gender equity and the control of corruption, and extract lessons from the disruptive effects of gender on policymaking in situations of entrenched corruption. 


Alex Habershon

Program Manager and Global Lead for Anticorruption, Governance Global Practice

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