The Link between Gender and Corruption. Why equality matters in dealing with corruption

“Are women really the ‘fairer’ sex?” This question was raised by researchers at the World Bank in 1999 (Dollar, et al., 1999). In their study, they used the International Country Risk Guide’s corruption index to see how corruption correlated with the involvement of women in parliament in more than 100 countries. Their findings were clear: “The greater the representation of women in parliament, the lower the level of corruption.” (p. 1) Another important study was published in 2001 (Swamy, et al., 2001) linking private sector data with public sector data in Georgia. The results led to the same conclusion as the study of Dollar, et al.: Women are less corrupt than men, female managers bribe less, and countries with a higher percentage of women in government and within the staff of their local companies have lower corruption levels.

Since these publications, the findings and conclusions drawn from them have been debated heavily. What could be the reason for the unambiguous numbers showing that women are less corrupt? In his article, Agerberg (2014) identifies three perspectives looking at the potential relationships between gender and corruption:

Agerberg refers to Sung (2004) when explaining the liberal democracy perspective. They argue that countries with more female representation have lower corruption because of the level of liberalism in their democracies. A fair democratic system (Rule of Law, political rights, free press) is a precondition for equality and therefore, more women work in political and economic key positions. Due to the institutional requirements of a fair democratic system these countries also have lower corruption levels. There is, however, no causal relationship between more women in certain positions and less corruption – they are both a consequence of a liberal democracy.

The gender differences perspective acknowledges the cultural differences between men and women. On that ground this perspective argues that women are less corrupt. Women in power contribute positively to their communities, paving the way for more transparency and less corruption. Later articles (Alatas, et al 2006) argue that it depends on the context, whether women act less corruptly. For very corrupt countries, studies could not find differences between the corruption of men and women. In order to survive in these cultural settings, everyone has to bribe – women and men equally.

The opportunities perspective argues that women have less opportunities to act corruptly since they hardly ever occupy higher positions of power. If they had the same opportunities as men, men and women would show the same corrupt behavior.

In addition to Agerberg’s perspectives, I would like to briefly present the most discussed hypotheses on the relationship of gender and corruption of the 2000s:

The gender-differences link is stronger in democratic countries

Alatas, et al. (2006) as well as Esarey/Chirrillo (2013) show that stronger democracies also show stronger gender differences in corrupt behavior. Bauhr, Charron and Wängnerud (2018) found that in some cases it can be riskier not to act corruptly. In very corrupt countries, everyone has to bribe. This would explain why there are less gender differences in very corrupt countries. Esarey and Schwindt-Bayer (2017) argue that if the risk of being caught is high and the punishment is severe, the differences between men and women in corrupt behavior are the highest.

Controls work better on women

Backing the results of Esarey and Schwindt-Bayer (2017), Frank et al (2011) showed that women react stronger to surveillance. As soon as the risk of being caught is higher, the probability of corrupt behavior decreases. These results suggest that women are more risk averse than men. In “Corruption, Accountability, and Gender: Do Female Politicians Face Higher Standards in Public Life?” Eggers, Vivyan and Wagner (2018) did not find that female politicians face significantly greater punishment for misconduct. However, they found that female voters in particular were more likely to punish female politicians for misconduct. If women face harsher punishment when they act corruptly, they are more likely to be honest and to not accept bribes.

Women bear the consequences of corruption

Poverty hits marginalized and disadvantaged groups more – including women. Assuming traditional role models, women are the ones taking care of children and the elderly. This includes taking care of education and health of their families. Due to pregnancies, women are much more dependent on the health system and services which are especially prone to corruption. In South India one out of two women has to pay a bribe if she wants a doctor to be present when giving birth (GTZ, 2004, p. 10). Studies show that extra costs for corruption and bribes are rather spent on male offspring (TI Policy Brief, 01/2014; GTZ, 2004). Boehm and Sierra (2015) emphasize that there are still not enough studies on the consequences and victims of corruption. Negative consequences (e.g. decreasing quality of education) can hardly be measured. Similar measuring problems arise when it comes to petty corruption or sexual corruption (GTZ 2004, S. 20; 23).

Women in power focus on different topics

Worldwide, women occupy 25 percent of seats in Parliament as of June 1, 2020 (IPU, 2020). In 2018, the number was at 27.1 percent. Studies from Scandinavia see the critical mass at 30 percent to notice a difference in policies (TI Policy Brief 01/2014; GTZ 2004, S. 2). Bauhr, Charron and Wängnerud (2008) studied 20 EU countries and conclude that more women in parliament contribute to the reduction of petty and grand corruption. Women in politics try to improve the services of the state and to break up male networks. Women are usually more dependent on public services, especially in health and education. Corruption decreased in these sectors but remained the same in other areas such as criminal prosecution.

Men deliver to the briber – but blow the whistle when not reciprocated

Similar results can be found when we look at whistleblowing. Frank, et al. (2011) found that women did not establish trust in the same way:

“Women appear less able or willing to establish this trust among corrupt criminals. Men tend to engage in positive reciprocity, delivering to the briber, even if this behavior is at odds with moral considerations vis-à-vis society. Men were also more willing to play negative reciprocity: they more often blew the whistle when their bribe was not reciprocated.” (Frank, et al., 2011)

Rehg, et al. (2008) investigated the retaliation of whistleblowers in the tech sector. They found that women faced more retaliation than men. “In the male sample, there was a small but significant correlation in that the more powerful they were, the less retaliation they said they experienced. For the female sample, there was no relationship” (Miceli in the CIO Magazine, 2008).

Does a balanced composition of teams contribute to corruption prevention?

The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) in Austria conducted a project on gender and corruption within the private sector. For years, members and colleagues working in internal audit kept asking the IIA whether they ever heard of a case of fraud with a woman as the main suspect. The answer was always: “No”. For this project the IIA worked closely together with the European Confederation of Internal Auditing (ECIIA), questioning more than 400 experts in internal auditing. Depending on the type of corruption, only between 12 and 24 percent of the suspects of fraud were female. The majority of cases were linked to departments who were “actually 100 % dominated by men or where a clear majority was male” (Kopetzky, 2012, p. 72). Compared to other economic crime, the percentage of male activity in corruption was very high. The results of the study suggest that it is not unrealistic, that more women in the units and an equal gender mix could be a preventive measure for corruption.

Although De Grassi, et al. (2012) focused on ethnic diversity, the results of their ethical business dilemmas should be considered. Heterogenous teams were more likely to take ethical decisions than homogenous. If we look at Kopetzky’s results, this could also be true for diverse teams when it comes to gender.


What can we take away from the theses presented? The studies tried to respond and find answers to the following questions: Are women less corrupt because they fear stronger punishment? Why are women not punished in the same way as men when they act as whistleblowers? Is diversity the key to more ethical decisions? Is a fair democracy the key to more equality and less corruption? While the scholarly articles cannot provide finite answers, the results show a strong tendency for women to act less corruptly and they react more strongly to control mechanisms as soon as they are implemented. The gender differences are even higher in democratic countries.

Drawing upon the findings it should be considered to hire diverse teams and see how they work compared to homogenous teams. In politics, it is crucial to include women – not to abolish corruption but because they represent half of the population and focus on other topics than male politicians do.

Another relevant aspect to that matter is whistleblowing: Why do women experience more retaliation? And how can we avoid this? How can complaint and whistleblowing systems be designed to react to these findings?

Instead of concluding this article with recommending that all teams should hire women or suggesting that a 50:50 ratio of men and women would increase any country’s transparency, I rather turn to the words of Stensöta and Wängnerud:

“…our point of departure is not that women are inherently ‘fair’ but that gender differences are rooted in culture and social structures. Thus, the gender factor should not be seen as a monolithic phenomenon, but rather as a hub for complex relationships.” (Stensöta/Wängnerud, 2018)

Therefore, it is imperative to keep observing these relationships in the cultures we operate in and keep up with studies that examine the connection between gender and corruption.

End Notes:

Agerberg, M., 2014. Perspectives on Gender and Corruption. Gender differences in regard to corruption in Europe from an individual and institutional perspective. Working Paper Series 2014:14. The Quality of Government Institute. University of Gothenburg.

Alatas, V., Cameron, L., Chaudhuri, A. and Erkal, N., 2006.  Gender and Corruption: Insights from an Experimental Analysis. Research Paper Number 974. The University of Melbourne. Department of Economics. October 2006.

Bauhr, M., Charron, N. and Wängnerud, L., 2008. Close the political gender gap to reduce corruption. How women’s political agenda and risk aversion restricts corrupt behavior. U4 Brief 2018:3.

Boehm, F. and Sierra, E., 2015. The gendered impact of corruption: Who suffers more – men or women? U4 Brief. August 2015:9.

CIO Magazine (2008):–women-experience-more-retaliation-than-men–study-reports.html

DeGrassi, S.W., Morgan, W., Walker, S., Wang, Y., and Sabat, I.E., 2012. Ethical Decision-Making: Group Diversity Holds the Key. Journal of Leadership, Accountability, and Ethics, 9, 51-65. Available at: <> [12.11.2018].

Dollar, D., Fisman, R. and Gatti, R., 1999: Are women really the “fairer” sex: corruption and women in government. Policy research report on gender and development working paper series; no. 4 Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group. Available at: <> [12.11.2018].

Eggers, A. C., Vivyan, N. and Wagner, M., 2020. Corruption, accountability, and gender: do female politicians face higher standards in public life? MSU Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. Available at: <> [10.08.2020].

Esarey, J. and Chrillo, G., 2013. “‘Fairer Sex’ or Purity Myth? Corruption, Gender, and Institutional Context,” Politics & Gender. Cambridge University Press, 9(4), pp. 361–389. doi: 10.1017/S1743923X13000378.

Esarey, J. and Schwindt-Bayer, L. A., 2018. “Women’s Representation, Accountability and Corruption in Democracies,” British Journal of Political Science. Cambridge University Press, 48(3), pp. 659–690. doi: 10.1017/S0007123416000478.

Frank, B., Graf Lambsdorff, J. and Boehm, F., 2011. Gender and Corruption: Lessons from Laboratory Corruption Experiments. European Journal of Development Research. 23. 59-71.

GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit GmbH) (2004): Korruption und Gender. Wechselwirkungen und Empfehlungen für die EZ. Fokusthema: Korruption und Frauenhandel. Abteilung 42. Sektorvorhaben Erarbeitung und Erprobung von Strategien und Maßnahmen zur Korruptionsvermeidung. Eschborn.

IPU 2020:

Kopetzky, M.: IIA-Forschungsprojekt “Gender and Corruption” in: “Lobbying und Sponsoring” Booklet zum Antikorruptionstag am 9. November 2012, Bundesministerium für Inneres, Bundesamt zur Korruptionsprävention und Korruptionsbekämpfung. Wien.

Stensöta, H. and Wängnerud, L., 2018: Why Expect a Link Between Gender and Corruption? In: Stensöta, Helena / Wängnerud, Lena (2018) (Hrsg.): Gender and Corruption. Historical Roots and New Avenues for Research. Palgrave macmillian, Gothenburg.

Sung, H., 2004. Democracy and Political Corruption: A Cross-National Comparison. Crime Law and Social Change, March 2004.

Rehg, M. T., Near, J. P., Miceli, M. P. and Van Scotter, J. R., 2008. Antecedents and Outcomes of Retaliation Against Whistleblowers Gender Differences and Power Relationships. Organization Science. 19. 221-240 Available at <> [10.08.2020].

Swamy, A., Knack, S., Lee, Y. and Azfard, O., 2001. Gender and Corruption. Journal of Development Economics. Volume 64, Issue 1. February 2001, Pages 25-55. Zitiert nach Agerberg 2014.

Transparency International, 2014. Gender, Equality and Corruption: What are the Linkages? Policy Brief #01/2014 [pdf], Berlin: Transparency International. Available at: <> [10.08.2020].

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