By Julie T. Katzman, Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of the IDB, and Vivian Ellen Roza.
2015 featured a number of high-profile corruption scandals with catchy names in Latin America – from The Carwash in Brazil to La Linea in Guatemala. Three of these scandals happened in countries with female presidents: Argentina, Brazil and Chile. To some, this raises a question: are female politicians more or less corrupt than their male counterparts?
Polls in Latin America and the United States show that female officeholders are considered to be more honest than men. In fact, that perception led several Latin American cities to place women in key police assignments to combat corruption, believing.
And many studies supported this perception. For example, citizens are less likely to pay bribes and there are lower levels of administrative irregularities in public procurement practices in cities with female mayors. However, more recent studies argue that context matters. If women are in positions of power in democratic and relatively transparent societies, their presence has a noticeably positive effect on reducing corruption. Conversely, women in power in autocratic regimes with a history of venality have scant impact on – or perhaps no interest in – busting up the “old boy networks” where murky deals are typically arranged. This may be because women are more averse to breaking societal norms, or ironically, because they may lack entry to the “old boys club” where corrupt deals are arranged.
Even if the evidence is inconclusive, should gender even matter? Why should we expect or demand that women in office be less corrupt than men? As women continue to gain positions of leadership, there will likely be good and bad, honest and corrupt, conciliatory and divisive, just like male politicians. At that point, we will see whether those public opinion polls were right.
But clearly we’re not there yet. Take Latin America: women make up half of the region’s population but hold only about one-quarter of cabinet-level appointments, legislative seats and senior civil service positions. And in political parties, women make up over 50% of the membership yet represent only 12% of the leadership.
Why does it matter how many women are in power?
While the data on gender and corruption may be ambiguous, the overall benefits of gender diversity are not. In the private sector, we see higher rates of return on investment, lower likelihood of bankruptcy and other similar positive performance indicators. In the public sector, a mounting body of evidence indicates that women’s presence in elective bodies improves the allocation of public resources and increases the probability that women’s and children’s interests will be represented in legislative priorities.
As a former investment banker, and in my current position as Executive Vice president of the IDB, I’ve witnessed both the paucity of female leaders at the negotiating table and the catalytic and creative effect women can have when, all too infrequently, they are present in numbers. So how do we change this situation?
To amplify women’s voices and representation at senior levels, the IDB has launched Red PROLID, a unique Latin American online platform that creates networking, mentoring and skill-building opportunities to help foster the emergence of women leaders and government officials.
We introduced this initiative because we firmly believe in the importance of boosting the number of qualified women in public service and creating an environment for their success. But it can’t end there. Red PROLID can contribute to these goals but not without some help from male gender champions, men like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and former French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault who appointed gender-balanced cabinets for the first time in their nations’ histories.
Whether or not corruption is ultimately found to have a gender, these heads of government clearly understand that when both men and women have a voice in the development of their countries, societies prosper. From prioritizing investments in health and education to passing gender- and family-friendly legislation, more women in high office produces better public policy and more equitable and inclusive societies.