Are Women Less Politically Corrupt in Africa? Here’s the Answer

The claim that women are less likely to be corrupt than men when in a public service is backed by limited to no evidence.

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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

It is conventional wisdom that corruption is a major development issue, particularly severe in developing countries, especially those in Africa. A majority of African countries constantly rank among the most corrupt in every corruption index. What explains this endemic corruption? While the literature is dominated by economic variables,  a number of studies have argued that some social norms are more likely to exacerbate corruption than others.

Specifically, it is believed (by among others Husted, La Porta et al., and Hofstede) that cultures with high power distance (paternalistic society), high collectivism, and masculinity are more likely to be corrupt.

These characteristics are thought to be common in developing countries, including in Africa.

This analysis focuses on the latter aspect, namely, the role of gender in corruption.

Recent decades have seen more voices calling for the greater inclusion of African women in politics and decision-making. Countries such as Liberia, Ethiopia, and Rwanda have made considerable progress toward this objective. We, therefore, ask a simple question: does an increase in women’s participation in politics affect the level of corruption in a given African country? We answer this question using findings from scientific studies and a simple correlation between the percentage of women in parliament and the Corruption Perception Index (Transparency International) of 45 African countries.


The idea that women are less corrupt than men emerge from the assumption that women have higher moral standards than men because of their position in society. They will then go on to carry that moral grounding as they move to public office. This idea was mainly popularised by the work of Dollar, Fisman, and Gatti in 2001 in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, who found that a greater share of women in parliament is associated with lower corruption.

However, the most recent literature suggests mixed findings. Various academic publications contend that there is an initial reduction in corruption as more women hold positions of power in the legislature, as Jha and Sarangi explain in a 2018 article in the Journal, but this initial reduction in corruption gradually decreases with time, as found by Bauhr and Charron in a 2020 article in Politics and Governance.

Looking specifically at Sub-Saharan Africa, some scholars suggest that one should look at the issue from the means of political socialisation and elite networks, rather than a gender angle. In fact, in 2016 Okonkwo argued in the African Sociological Review that powerful political and social godfathers and -mothers vet aspiring politicians, secure funding, and protect them from prosecution when they engage in corrupt behaviour. Rather than comprehending corruption as a phenomenon related to gender differences, it is far more useful to view it in the context of “business as usual.”

This claim is supported by Alhassan-Alolo’s 2007 study, “Gender and corruption: Testing the new consensus” in Public Administration and Development.

In this study, individuals in Ghana are surveyed to measure their attitudes on corruption in the public sector. The sentiments expressed by both males and females were almost exactly identical when discussing “gifts” as payments to public sector employees. When these individuals were further questioned, they cited wider contextual challenges as justification for receiving these gifts. These challenges ranged from inadequate salaries, widespread poverty, and informal loan payments to friends and family.

Our own “simplistic” preliminary analysis shows that the percentage of women in parliament does slightly decrease the level of corruption as measured by Corruption Perception Index, although the relationship is extremely weak. As the figure below shows, the two variables tend to closely move together in a positive relationship (a higher score in the index means lower levels of corruption) but we see several instances when they depart from each other, thus blurring the relationship.

The two big outliers on the figure exemplify well the relationship between gender and corruption. On the one hand, we have Rwanda that has the highest percentage of women in parliament (61.3%) with a relatively low level of corruption, and on the other hand we have Botswana with one of the lowest percentage of women in parliament (9.5%) yet is the least corrupt African country in the pool.

This contradiction tells us that they may be something else, other than gender, that can explain the low level of corruption one observes, for instance, in Rwanda.

The case of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

While aspiring to have more women in public sector positions is a noble ideal for liberalism, expecting a mere demographic change to amount to meaningful change in overall levels of corruption is maybe misguided. To explore the relationship further, we consider the case of the first female head of state in an African country, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

Elected in 2006 following over a decade of civil war and violence, President Sirleaf pledged to drastically reduce corruption. Outside of Liberia, many celebrated the election of a woman executive as the beginning of a new age of optimism, progress, and transparency on the continent. This adoration is marked by President Sirleaf receiving the Nobel peace prize in 2011.

Yet when she left office in 2017, President Sirleaf admitted that her administration failed in its ambitious anti-corruption campaign. During Sirleaf’s first term in office, more than 20 government ministers were accused of corruption by Liberia’s corruption watchdog, the General Auditing Commission. This marked the beginning of a wide array of scandals that plagued the administration, including allegations that the lawyer that used to head Sirleaf’s political party paid more than $950,000 in bribes. Perhaps the most public of these scandals involved accusations of nepotism over the appointment of three of her sons to top government posts.

If women are less susceptible to corruption than men, how is it that President Sirleaf fell victim to the very problem she audaciously pledged to combat?

In this instance, it helps to turn our attention to her own Vice President, Josef Boakai, and his attempts to distance himself from his former running mate ahead of the 2017 election. When asked why he was making this political manoeuvre, he stated, “If you park a race car in the garage for 12 years, it gets rusty.”

Maybe Boakai was referring to candidate fatigue and the fact that Liberia was ready for a new executive. But it is also possible to interpret this statement in light of the literature that was previously discussed. Having served in political office for 12 years as Liberia’s executive, Sirleaf became exposed to these networks of corruption and patronage. As time progressed, this network only became more extensive and elaborate. After 12 years, the initial pledge she made to stymie corruption in 2006 was long forgotten. Instead, Liberia was left with a leader who was conducting politics and patronage according to the norms and values of her country, despite being the first woman head of state in Africa.

What should we learn from this analysis? The most important takeaway is that the claim that women are less likely to be corrupt than men when in a public service is backed by limited to no evidence.

The broader evidence seems to support the point that a greater presence of women in politics in Sub-Saharan Africa tend to initially reduce corruption because they are not well integrated into the system. But once they become integrated into these elite networks and become socialised with the pre-existing political structure, gender does not make a difference anymore, and it is business as usual.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that this analysis is oversimplified for accessibility and warrants a deeper analysis. Further, as Goetz argued in a 2007 article in Development and Change, women and men experience corruption differently, which can have implications for anti-corruption strategies. Finally, it is important to emphasise that the need to have more women in politics does not need to be argued upon the “myth” that women are less corrupt than men. Rather, it should be considered on its own merits.

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