Guest Post: Gender Equality in Parliaments and Political Corruption

Priya Sood, Program Advisor at the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC) contributes this guest post, in honor of International Women’s Day (March 8):

Does the extra X chromosome make political leaders less likely to bribe, pilfer, and lie? Are women across the board less corrupt?  According to recent research by GOPAC’s Women in Parliament Network, the reality is far more nuanced.

GOPAC conducted research based on a ten-year analysis of trends in the proportion of women elected to national parliaments as correlated to trends in national corruption levels. Surprisingly, the findings showed no general worldwide correlation between changes in parliamentary gender balance and changes in political corruption.  However, when GOPAC examined countries which have traditionally been strongholds of parliamentary democracy, the picture changed. In countries with reasonably robust democratic systems that enforce their anticorruption laws–but only in those countries–an increase in the number of women in parliament will tend to reduce corruption.

In addition to that general finding, GOPAC’s research on legislative gender equality and corruption also suggests a number of potential reforms that would help further both gender equality and anticorruption:

  • Legislation to mandate parliamentary oversight of government use and management of state financial instruments
  • Rules within political parties that commit a party to fielding a minimum number of candidates of each gender in general elections
  • Increasing female political leaders’ capacity and understanding of financial oversight mechanisms

For a more evidence that the women’s political participation tends to reduce corruption in strong democracies, but not elsewhere, see recent research by Justin Esarey and Gina Chirillo.

12 thoughts on “Guest Post: Gender Equality in Parliaments and Political Corruption

  1. Priya,

    Thank you very much for providing this guest post, and for sharing this information about GOPAC’s research on the possible links between parliamentary gender equality and anticorruption. The topic is both important and timely. On reading your post, I had a couple of questions that I wanted to raise.

    First, it wasn’t clear to me how your main empirical finding (that parliamentary gender equality reduces corruption if, but only if, the country already has robust democracy and a strong commitment to enforcing anticorruption laws) related to the reform proposals listed in the bullet points at the end of the post. The first proposal (strengthening legislative oversight of state finances) seems like a good idea but doesn’t seem to have much to do with gender equality specifically. The second proposal (requiring parties to field a minimum number of candidates of each gender) may help promote equal representation, but if this requirement is supposed to be an anticorruption measure, your research if anything suggests that it may not be that effective in many countries (such as those that lack a pre-existing commitment to robust anticorruption enforcement). The third proposal (increasing female political leaders’ ability to engage in financial oversight) seems like a good idea—in fact, it would probably be a good idea for all legislators to improve on this dimension—but again I didn’t see how it followed from your research.

    Second, if I understand correctly, GOPAC’s research shows a correlation (in strong democracies with a commitment to anticorruption) between female representation in parliament and lower levels of corruption. Your post interprets this correlation as evidence that female representation causes the decrease in corruption. But how do we know the causal relationship runs from parliamentary gender equality to lower corruption, rather than the other way around? Maybe reductions in corruption make it easier for women (who might have traditionally been excluded from politics by corrupt “old boy” networks) to get involved? Or what if some other factor—like a commitment to the liberal values of fairness and equality—simultaneously causes both the decrease in corruption and the increase in female representation? (Professor Hung-En Sung has done research that suggests that possibility:

    The true explanation for the correlations you’ve found may be important for some of your policy recommendations. For example, suppose that having more women in parliament causes corruption to decrease. Then, in strong democracies with a commitment to anticorruption enforcement, rules that require each party to field a minimum number of women in the general election may be an effective anticorruption policy (in addition to whatever other benefits or costs the policy might have). But if the correlation between more female MPs and lower corruption is not a causal relationship, but rather driven by variation in different countries’ commitment to a set of liberal values (equality, fair play, individual rights, etc.), then mandating more female political representation in countries that lack those values will not have any beneficial effect on corruption levels.

    I would be very interested in what you, your GOPAC colleagues, and other readers might have to say about this, so I hope we can get a conversation going.

  2. Matthew, many thanks for raising these important questions.
    We share your concern about the challenges isolating the causal relationship between reduced corruption and gender equality. Given the complexity of isolating the variables associated with liberal democracy and gender equality, we would not profess to do so in the research presented.

    With the current research, we would not attempt to refute Hung-En Sung argument of spurious association. As Sung mentioned many of the theories put forward to explain the correlation between women’s participation and level of corruption have not been empirically tested. Our hope is that the questions we raise in the blog post can be addressed in greater detail in future research. Examples such as Rwanda where gender equality has been introduced prior to, or coinciding with the increase of liberal values, present a strong laboratory for future research of this nature. Likewise, in Nordic countries, where a gender quota exists, nascent empirical evidence suggests that female parliamentarians are less likely to be involved in corruption scandals.

    Lastly on this point, there are few who refute the evidence that development is bolstered by women’s direct involvement. Just today, the guardian quotes that “70% of a woman’s salary goes back into her family”, imagine the influence that this could have on development and well-being at a state level.

    • Fascinating! Do you know of any ongoing academic research on Rwanda or the Nordic countries? As you suggest, seems like a great opportunity to try to isolate the effects of gender equality on corruption and other outcomes.

      • I just attended the 58 Commission of the Status of Women meeting in NYC. There were several side sessions which focused on what happens to women once they’ve entered politics. I’ll keep my eye out for recent research especially with the many Nordic institutions (NGOs, think tanks, universities) looking at this precise issue.

  3. Matthew, The recommendations at the end need to happen in parallel. Therefore, the ones that are mentioned under bullet 2 don’t ensure gender equality; they focus on upholding parliamentary democratic principles. I hope this clarifies. Priya

    • Ah, yes, that’s now very clear.

      As I noted in my original comment, though, the empirical finding does raise some questions about the proposals, particularly the proposal about gender quotas in elections. Suppose you were talking to someone who was (mildly) opposed to gender quotas, but who was very worried about corruption. (And suppose this person’s country was a relatively robust democracy, committed to enforcing anticorruption laws.) He might be persuaded to support that proposal if parliamentary gender equality reduces corruption, but might still oppose the quotas if the association is spurious.

      I don’t think you would disagree with any of that. But it’s probably good that our exchange makes clear that the bullet point recommendations do not depend on the empirical results, but rather are stand-alone proposals for improving both gender parity and control of corruption.

  4. “In countries with reasonably robust democratic systems that enforce their anticorruption laws–but only in those countries–an increase in the number of women in parliament will tend to reduce corruption.”

    The weakness of the causal connection that you are relying on has been helpfully explained by Prof Stephenson in his comment. But what about the other countries, those without “reasonably robust democratic systems”? I would suspect that they provide plenty of examples of women participating in grand corruption just as successfully and proficiently as their male peers (please correct me if I’m wrong on that). Does not that render the link between gender issues and corruption rather questionable?

    • Yes, it does render the link of gender issues and corruption questionable which is why we are recommending that countries in transition focus on both issues – 1) strenghtening parliamentary oversight mechanisms and 2) enhance women’s political participation.

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