Do women in power have an impact on corruption?

  • Blog Post Date 21 May, 2014
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Sudipta Sarangi

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The recently elected 16th Lok Sabha of India will have a record number of 61 women parliamentarians. This column assesses whether women in the labour force or positions of power can have an impact on corruption. Analysing data from over 125 countries, it finds that women can reduce corruption but only in policymaking positions. They can do so via policies and not because they are necessarily less corrupt.

Several studies in social and behavioural sciences have found that women behave differently than men in many walks of life. For instance, research in psychology reports substantial gender differences in moral and helping behaviour (Eagly and Crowley 1986); sociology research finds gender differences in the tendency to commit crimes (see for example, Heidensohn 1996), and studies in political science find women’s voting behaviour to be more closely associated with social issues than men’s (see for example, Goertzel 1983).1

In economics there is a substantial literature suggesting that there are gender differences in preferences towards risk and social outcomes. For example, several studies suggest that women are more risk-averse than men while making investment decisions (see Eckel and Grossman 2008, and references therein). Experimental evidence shows that women are more inequality averse, with women offering a higher share of the pie to their partners, when both individuals remain unaware of each other’s identity (Eckel and Grossman 1998). In general, incentive-based experiments in economics indicate that women are more cooperative and altruistic than men.2

Corruptibility of women: Mixed evidence

Motivated by findings that women are more altruistic and pro-social, researchers have also investigated the association between gender and corruption. Corruption (bribe-taking), it can be argued is essentially the opposite of altruism – it amounts to asking an individual for money to help them, and strictly reduces the well-being of the person paying the bribe. Extrapolating from the above mentioned studies, one could hypothesise that women are less corrupt and less likely to be involved in bribery.

The first set of studies investigated this hypothesis by determining if corruption was lower in countries where there was a higher share of women in the labour force, parliament and government. The idea is that if women are less corrupt, then we should observe a negative association between women’s presence in these jobs and corruption.

An early cross-country study by Swami et al. (2001) finds that a higher share of women in the labour force is associated with lower levels of corruption perception in a country. Moreover, such studies also report a negative relationship between the share of women in parliament in a country and corruption (Swami et al. 2001, Dollar et al. 2001). In fact, using a micro-level data set, the study by Swami et al. shows that firms with female owners or managers are less likely to offer bribes and also less likely to condone corrupt activities.

In a recent experimental study, Alatas et al. (2009) find Australian women to be less tolerant of corruption than Australian men; however, no gender difference in corruption tolerance is found in India, Indonesia and Singapore, leading them to conclude that gender difference in the attitudes towards corruption, and hence the corruptibility of women, may be culture specific and not a universal phenomenon.

If we focus on female politicians in India, the general perception is that they are not any less corrupt than their male counterparts. One only needs to look at reports on politicians such as Mayawati, Jayalalitha or more recently Kanimozhi in the media suggesting that the experience of an individual country may be different.3

Confounding factors

Given the mixed evidence on the corruptibility of women, we set out to re-examine the observed negative relationship (i) between the share of women in the labour force and corruption, and (ii) the share of women in parliament and corruption (Jha and Sarangi 2014). To the best of our knowledge, this is the most recent work in this regard.

The argument here is that women are not fundamentally different from men. As Goetz (2007), while discussing Peruvian traffic cops where women have not yet stooped to bribe-taking practices unlike men, writes “...women will not passively conform to the idealized notions of their finer moral nature when they have families to feed and if there is money to be made from public office."

We believe that if we take into account other factors that can potentially affect women’s presence in these occupations and/or corruption, the two relationships might disappear. These factors include cultural issues, democratic factors, gender inequality and institutions that favor a particular gender.

For instance, some have argued that women do not have access to ‘corruption networks’ or knowledge about how to engage in corrupt practices in the same way that men do, which is responsible for the observed negative association between women’s participation and corruption. This would of course not be the case if there is little or no gender inequality in a country. Some other studies argue that it is the ‘fairer system’ and not the fairer sex that is associated with lower corruption – countries with liberal democracy tend to have less corruption and higher presence of women in political arena (Sung 2003).4

Can women reduce corruption?

Our paper uses an extensive dataset consisting of a number of variables such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, political rights, openness to trade and gender inequality index, from a number of different sources such as the World Bank, Freedom House, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Our study covers more than 125 countries, and is based on a much larger dataset than used in previous studies. Our measure of corruption in a country is a variable called the Control of Corruption Index5 published by the World Bank. Most importantly our study addresses a statistical issue called the endogeneity problem. This problem occurs because while women in the labour force or in the parliament can have an impact on corruption, it is entirely feasible that corruption determines the number of women in the parliament or workforce; hence, correcting for this problem is absolutely critical for accurately analysing the impact of women in labour force/ parliament on corruption.

Our research shows that women cannot affect corruption when they are a part of the labour force – in clerical positions or in decision-making positions (senior officials in the corporate sector). These results suggest that women are not lagging behind in corrupt practices compared to men – at least, in bribe-taking!

Interestingly, however (consistent with the previous findings), our results also show that, women can reduce corruption if they are represented in politics. In other words, women may be able to reduce corruption only if they are present in policymaking positions.

Women as policymakers can indeed make a difference

This begs the question, why? Why is there a negative relationship between the share of women in national parliaments and corruption across countries, especially when women do not seem to be less corrupt themselves? Is this relationship spurious?

Our answer to this question is - no. Women as parliamentarians are able to reduce corruption not because they are less corrupt but because there are policy implications of women’s presence in parliament.

In the same paper, using a data set covering more than 150 countries over the period 1998-2011, we find that a higher share of women in national parliaments is associated with a higher fraction of government spending being allotted to education and health.

Similar findings regarding government spending have been reported at the local government (Gram Panchayat) level in India. Using data from 265 village councils in West Bengal and Rajasthan, Bhattacharya and Duflo (2004) find that women leaders invest more in public services that are more closely related to women’s concerns. The policy implications of gender representation in parliaments and governments have also been reported for other countries like United States, Honduras and some others.6

We hypothesise that the policies enacted by women are different from those enacted by men, and could be the potential channel through which women as parliamentarians affect corruption. We speculate that these policies may affect corruption via at least two possible mechanisms. First, there may be a lower scope of misappropriation of funds in the programmes implemented under these policies. Second, if women politicians spend more money on education and health, this leads to higher human capital which in turn may have a negative impact on corruption.

Thus, women as policymakers are able to reduce corruption via policies and not because they are necessarily less corrupt.


  1. To some, of course, gender differences in behaviour are so evident that they do not need these research findings to believe that women are behaviourally different from men! The studies listed here are merely illustrative and by no means exhaustive.
  2. A very nice overview of studies relating to this topic can be found in Croson and Gneezy (2009).
  3. There are several corruption charges against Jayalalitha (see: M. K. Kanimozhi, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha – Upper House) from Tamil Nadu was arrested in connection with the telecom (popularly known as 2G) scandal ( While a corruption case against Mayawati was quashed by the Supreme Court due to insufficient evidence, it remains a mystery how a government school teacher-turned politician became one of the richest Indian politicians with assets worth more than Rs. 100 crores (
  4. For a detailed discussion of these factors and other such factors please see our paper (Jha and Sarangi 2014).
  5. This measure of corruption is designed to capture the “perceptions of the extent to which public power is exercised for private gain, including both petty and grand forms of corruption, as well as “capture" of the state by elites and private interests".
  6. See Jha and Sarangi (2014) for more on this along with additional references.
  7. While this mechanism may not be so evident in developing countries where petty corruption is widespread, in developed countries such as the US, stealing money from a social welfare programme, where there is direct interaction between the beneficiary as an individual and the government official, is extremely difficult. On the other hand, political corruption is more difficult to monitor. Another mechanism through which these policies might lead to lower levels of corruption is if women tend to choose to invest in basic services, the amount of resources involved is often not very high, reducing the amount of money available for corruption.

Further Reading

  • Alatas, Vivi, Cameron, Lisa, Chaudhuri, Ananish, Erkal, Nisvan and Lata Gangadharan (2009), "Gender, culture, and corruption: Insights from an experimental analysis", Southern Economic Journal, 75(3):663-680.
  • Chattopadhyay, Raghabendra and Esther Duflo (2004), “Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India", Econometrica, 72(5):1409-1443.
  • Croson, Rachel and Uri Gneezy (2009), "Gender differences in preferences", Journal of Economic Literature, 448-474.
  • Dollar, David, Raymond Fisman, and Roberta Gatti (2001), “Are Women Really the Fairer Sex? Corruption and Women in Government", Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 46(4):423-429.
  • Eagly, A.H., and Crowley, M. (1986), “Gender and helping behavior: A meta-analytic review of the social psychological literature”, Psychological Bulletin, 100(3):283.
  • Eckel, C.C. and P.J. Grossman (1998), “Are Women Less Selfish than Men? Evidence from Dictator Experiments", Economic Journal, 108(448):726-735.
  • Eckel, C.C. and Grossman, P.J. (2008), ‘Men, women and risk aversion: Experimental evidence’, Handbook of experimental economics results, 1(7):1061-73.
  • Goertzel, Ted G. (1983), "The Gender Gap – Sex, Family Income And Political Opinions In The Early 1980s", Journal of Political & Military Sociology, 11(2):209-222.
  • Goetz, Anne Marie (2007), “Political Cleaners: Women as the New Anti-Corruption Force?", Development and Change, 38(1):87-105.
  • Heidensohn, Frances, Silverstri, Marisa and Jo Campling (1996), Women and crime, Macmillan Publishers Limited.
  • Jha, Chandan Kumar and Sarangi, Sudipta (2014), ‘Women and Corruption: What Positions Must They Hold to Make a Difference?’, May 2014, Available at SSRN:
  • Swamy, Anand, Stephen Knack, Young Lee, and Omar Azfar (2001), “Gender and Corruption", Journal of Development Economics, 64(1):25-55.
  • Sung, H.E. (2003), “Fairer sex or fairer system? Gender and corruption revisited”, Social Forces, 82(2):703-723.
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