Corruption is a nasty thing. It has a detrimental effect on society in multiple ways. In the worst cases, corruption can cost lives. Short of death, corruption can cost people their freedom, money, and health. The effects of corruption can be divided into three main avenues: political, economic, and social.
From a political standpoint, corruption is a major threat to democracy and the rule of law. In a democracy, offices and institutions lost their legitimacy when they’re used for private gain. Not only is corruption damaging for established democracies, but corruption can seriously setback newly-evolved democracies. It’s difficult to develop strong democratic institutions and political accountability amidst rampant corruption.
Corruption causes numerous negative economic consequences: lower investment, lower GDP, greater income inequality, and budget distortions. It may also lower public sector quality and contribute to the rise of black markets and tax evasion. Corrupt politicians divert public resources to projects that will line their pockets rather than benefit the general population. These politicians also prioritize high-profile projects, such as dams and power plants, that more easily hide misallocated funds at the cost of vital government services like education and infrastructure.
Finally, corruption erodes the social fabric of society. It undermines public trust in the political system, leaders, and institutions. Widespread disillusionment often leads to apathy and higher tolerance for corruption, making anti-corruption efforts more difficult.
What’s a country to do?
Despite real fears about corruption, people remain undecided about how to best combat corruption. Many anti-corruption measures succeed in the short-term, but ultimately fail to significantly alter behavior and accomplish lasting reform. In response, some scholars have proposed that women are less corrupt than men. Traditionally, society believed that women were inherently more moral and needed protection from the amoral political sphere. While this idea seems outdated and a bit demeaning, several studies show that men are more selfish and less risk-averse than women; both qualities are tied to corruption.
If women are less corrupt than men, then perhaps increasing women’s presence in government will reduce political corruption. Many activists and policymakers have seized onto this idea by demanding for gender quotas and more recruitment by political parties for women candidates. They claim that simply boosting women’s numbers will be enough to combat corruption. After all, women are the fairer sex.
I tested whether having more women legislators decreased corruption.
Using two measures of corruption, I ran statistical tests to see whether increasing women’s presence in the national legislature reduced political corruption within 183 countries. My data spanned a time period from 1995 to 2014. Since corruption isn’t confined to a specific region or continent, finding an anti-corruption policy that works throughout the world would be optimal for reformer governments and development organizations.
My study was divided into two parts. First, I tested whether the number of women legislators had a direct effect on political corruption; this test is called the TI basic model in the figure below. This test supported the earlier research with statistically significant results: greater women’s representation reduces political corruption. But it’s worth pointing out that the effect was fairly small.
Second, I retested the relationship between women’s representation and corruption, but I also accounted for other influences on corruption. This addition sets my research apart from previous studies since these studies often focused on either political or economic alternate explanations, but neither both. For instance, I included the influences of electoral rules and national wealth on corruption. In addition to political and economic variables, I also added a social influence on corruption: ethnic fractionalization. The results from the second part of my study are labelled TI and ICRG full models.
My analysis shows that higher women’s numbers have little, if any, effect on corruption. After accounting for other influences on corruption, the relationship between women’s representation and corruption almost disappears. In the figure above, the TI full model gave statistically insignificant results; the ICRG full model generated barely statistically significant results, but the ICRG index is an indicator of political risk rather than corruption. The difference between the two threats probably explains the finding.
The answer was not really.
I think my findings are more compelling than previous studies. Unlike previous studies, I account for a mixture of political, economic, and social influences on corruption. For instance, widespread income inequality makes struggling individuals easy prey for corrupt officials. Likewise, high literacy rates imply a more educated public which likely recognizes the harms of corruption and seeks to fight it.
Will higher numbers of women legislators truly reduce corruption? I don’t think so. My results suggested that women have a very small effect on corruption. A country would likely must add at least 50% more women to the legislature before seeing results. This shift would take multiple election cycles and seems impractical.
Rather, public officials should focus on strengthening democratic institutions.
To fight corruption, governments should protect civil liberties and political rights. When government protects these two things, liberal democracies emerge from fairer societies. By their nature, liberal democracies reduce opportunities for corruption. Plus, increasing women’s representation in government becomes more important. The world needs anti-corruption policies that work in order to improve millions, if not billions, of lives. Women might not magically eliminate corruption, but governments can still benefit from their differing perspectives and experiences.