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Understanding New Research on Gender and Corruption in Government


Members of the EU Women Caucus

An April 2018 study titled “Women and corruption: What positions must they hold to make a difference?” found that corruption is lower in countries with more women in office at both the national and local level. The authors suggest that this is because women legislators often champion policies that address poverty, education, and healthcare at a greater rate than men, and have been found to be “more concerned about whether subsidies were provided to the targeted group without corruption.”


Importantly, the study does not find that women are “inherently less corrupt” than men, and found no correlation found between corruption and gender in other occupations. Some critics worry that as equality improves, women will get more corrupt as they become ingrained in the existing political structures and networks. However, the study found that there is a stronger negative correlation between corruption and women’s representation in parliament in countries with higher equality. Thus, the policy-making role is what enables women “to impact corruption,” not some inherent difference between the moral character of women and men. Overall, the study shows that another benefit of promoting gender equality is reducing corruption in politics.


Sudipta Sarangi, one of the co-authors of the new study, described the crucial connection between gender parity and corruption: “This research underscores the importance of women’s empowerment, their presence in leadership roles and their representation in government. This is especially important in light of the fact that women remain underrepresented in politics in most countries including the United States.”


According to Transparency International, which measures perceived levels of public sector corruption, the U.S. is currently the 16th least corrupt country. Topping the chart are countries like New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. These countries also rank in the top 25 for legislative gender parity, as measured by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, compared with the U.S. which ranks 103rd.


It shouldn’t be a surprise that New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries are consistently ranked the best places for women to live, due in large part to legislation and institutional systems that promote women’s equality. With more women in their legislatures, these countries have been able to drive policy initiatives like robust welfare systems, free healthcare and education, affordable childcare, and parental leave, all of which benefit women and families -- reforms that the U.S. struggles to achieve.  


Additionally, the countries that are considered “least corrupt” tend to enforce different kinds of gender “quotas” that encourage women’s equal representation in government: in Sweden, Norway, and New Zealand, political parties set voluntary quotas in order to put forward roughly equal numbers of male and female candidates. Globally, women’s representation has increased significantly in countries with quotas, both legislative and voluntary. It is notable that these countries have some of the least corrupt governments and are the most committed to advancing women’s representation.


RepresentWomen emphasizes, though, that representation is only half the battle. Women face distinct barriers in politics at every point along the way, like raising campaign money, gaining support from political establishments, and finding affordable childcare options while in office. Solving these problems and making political leadership more accessible to women will require structural changes to our electoral systems, political culture, and government rules. Still, this study is exciting for its new implications about the benefits of women’s leadership. The study emphasises that “women can affect corruption when they are in positions of power,” so we must ensure that women can not only run and win, but effectively lead.


By Barbara Turnbull, Evelien van Gelderen, and Jamie Solomon

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