December 10, 2008
Gender and Public Corruption
The Blagojevich scandal presents a familiar tableau: embattled man defends corrupt behavior.
Why is it so rarely a woman?
Replaying political scandals over the past year, tons of names come to mind: Rod Blagojevich, Tony Rezko, Jack Abramoff, John Edwards, Larry Craig, Elliot Spitzer, Alberto Gonzalez, Ted Stevens, David Vitter … I could go on. Off the top of my head, I can think of three female names: Sarah Palin, Monica Goodling, and Rachel Paulose. (And men figured prominently in all three of their scandals as well.)
Of course, there are a few instant provisos here:
- Fewer women in politics: This is the obvious one. The most female governors we’ve ever had in the U.S. has been nine. Perhaps if women were equally represented, they’d be equally scandalous.
- Lower likelihood of female sex scandals: Most of the men I mentioned above were exposed in a sex scandal. For several reasons — differing behavioral tendencies towards sex among men and women; possibly harsher attitudes towards women caught in sex scandals — women may just be less likely to be involved in sex scandals.
- Statistical noise in a small sample: The U.S. doesn’t have all that much corruption, comparatively speaking. (At least as it’s commonly measured; we can talk Chomsky later.) If we had more cases to deal with, perhaps we’d see more equivalence between the sexes.
But these caveats aside, there are reasons to suppose women might make for less corrupt politicians. Women tend to be more responsible stewards of household money. Partially as a result of that, efforts to deliver financial support to women in poverty tend to have a more uplifting effect than supporting men. Studies seem to indicate that women perform more altruistically in group situations.
I was able to find three studies that addressed gender disparities in political corruption. Two — Dollar, Fisman and Gatti (1999); and Swamy, Lee, Azfar and Knack (also 1999) — found that women are less prone to public corruption. However, a follow-up study in 2003, by Hung En-Sung, suggested that the correlation between more women and less corruption was essentially a happy accident.
And even if we were to prove conclusively that having more women does lead to cleaner government, where does that get us? What course of action does that suggest? Already, I think most of us inclined to trust such a study are strong advocates for better representation of women in politics. Should we institute a quota system, like Rwanda?
Of course, I think diversity in the political system is a valuable goal in itself. A more representative and heterogeneous political body would probably be less corrupt for all sorts of reasons.
But as these scandals parade before us, this will linger in the back of my mind.