On Women & Corruption
By Agata Slota, Palladium’s Behaviour Change Advisor and Zainab Ravat, Palladium Research & Management Associate
For decades, researchers have tried to understand if women are more ethical, more honest or less innately corrupt than men. While we now know that no straightforward answer exists, we also know that in many contexts women do not participate in corrupt practices as often as men. Why is this?
A probable answer relates both to structural inequalities, as well as social and gender norms and the power dynamics that uphold them. (See Kiely Barnard-Webster’s 2017 post for this very blog: “How Might Gender Roles Affect Whether You Engage in, or Hold Back from, Corruption?”) Yet we lack good evidence about the gender dimensions of corruption. A 2020 UNOCD report notes there is a “lack of data and primary research on how gender dynamics interplay with accountability, transparency and power structures,” thereby limiting both anti-corruption and gender equality efforts.
In an attempt to help fill this evidence gap, Palladium undertook a study on behalf of the UK government, in partnership with the Jordanian social research organization Mindset. The study—a survey and set of focus groups—examined the intersection of social norms and corruption, centering on ordinary citizens and their interactions with public officials and institutions. The research, conducted in 2020, is particularly pertinent now; Jordan faces grave economic uncertainty—unemployment reached 25% in the first quarter of 2021, with youth unemployment hitting an unprecedented 48%—and its citizens are calling for political and economic reforms.
Our study’s most interesting findings relate to wasta, which U4 defines as “a practice of exchanging favors.” Wasta is widespread in Jordan, and far more common than bribery. As lawyer and academic Aseel Al-Ramahi wrote, “Wasta is a way of life.” Some forms of wasta are innocuous and could even be socially beneficial—think of a doctor helping a friend’s ill mother-in-law after that friend had provided advice to the doctor’s cousin about a job opening. But as Transparency International notes, collectively, “[f]avouritism in the form of wasta poses a serious threat to social and economic equality, basic human rights and the rule of law.” This kind of favoritism can range from asking a friend who works in a government office to speed up your drivers’ license renewal application to getting a major infrastructure contract because of your contacts with the right decision-makers.
In Jordan wasta is often used for functional reasons. The majority of citizens see it as the only way to access quality, timely public services within a governance system perceived to be inefficient and unfair. But the practice also has strong normative underpinnings. The norm of reciprocity, which dictates that one helps those who have helped them, sustains a back-and-forth exchange of favours. A more direct social norm dictates that men are expected by their close circle to use wasta to obtain a quality service that should rightfully be theirs, such as a hospital bed or a driver’s license.
We argue, however, that any effective anti-corruption strategy requires an understanding of how social norms impact wasta. And this brings us to the need to understand differences in how men and women think of and use wasta.
Women do wasta differently
Our research found that Jordanian women approve of wasta almost as much as men. While female focus groups’ participants were more likely to bring up the potential negative effects of wasta on other members of society, women’s survey responses reflected largely similar attitudes towards the acceptability of wasta as those of men. This was true when asked about wasta in general, and when asked about specific situations— using wasta, for instance, to speed up a government service, secure a health clinic appointment or government contract, or to get a job.
“Despite similar personal approval of wasta, women engage in it differently. Namely, they are less likely to use wasta directly, and instead seek favors through intermediaries.”
Despite similar personal approval of wasta, women engage in it differently. Namely, they are less likely to use wasta directly, and instead seek favors through intermediaries, such as husbands, brothers, or fathers. This is particularly true in more conservative parts of Jordan. The reasons for this center around the intertwined determinants of social norms and power. Women have less access to the kind of ‘power’ that would provide them with services or favors they need. Male employees, for instance, far outnumber women within public and private institutions. (Jordanian women’s labor participation, around 16%, is one of the lowest in the world.) In addition, women lack access to male-dominated patronage networks.
This lack of access is in many ways socially driven; women are constrained by norms in their ability to interact with non-kin men. Since most public sector institution staff are male, this becomes a very practical complication. As one male focus group participant said, “A woman uses wasta less because she usually resorts to her brother or husband and it is rare to find a woman [working], especially in governmental departments, [so] she would ask someone [male] to do it for her.”
Importantly, women carry a heavy burden to protect their ‘reputation.’ “We [women] do not do anything without thinking about what people think,” a woman explained. “We care about the traditions in the society, so this is always the more essential thing.” Another female participant summed it up: “You find [a woman] avoiding anything that could possibly affect her reputation.” A woman seeking wasta directly without a male interlocutor risks igniting gossip and an interrogation by men in her family.
In addition to concerns about reputation, women fear ‘sextortion.’ As one participant said, she would need to think carefully before invoking wasta, to assess if the man “is the type of person who might take advantage of me and lead to consequences.”
Three take-aways for anti-corruption interventions in Jordan
1. Focus norm-shifting activities to curb wasta on men
What do these findings on social norms and corruption mean in practice? First, Jordanian men are the main ‘reference groups,’ or influencers, for both men and women in their decisions on whether to use wasta or not. In our focus groups, women were rarely identified as people who would be sought out for advice regarding wasta. Moreover, because of the gender power differentials, men’s disapproval (or ‘social sanctions’) of behaviors that don’t align with norms such as returning favors are more likely to have a greater impact on people’s behaviors than women’s disapproval.
“Norm-shifting activities to curb wasta should focus primarily on men—women will simply be much less influential in changing these norms.”
As a result, norm-shifting activities to curb wasta should focus primarily on men—women will simply be much less influential in changing these norms. A social norms-informed approach would call for first changing men’s attitudes and behaviors, and then highlighting this change to the wider public.
2. Support greater diversity within institutions
Despite this focus on men, a strong case exists for supporting greater diversity within Jordanian institutions as an effective, long-term anti-corruption measure. As UNODC notes, “For a network of individuals to coordinate any activity that is illegal or widely disapproved of, there must be strong within-group trust, and this trust may be easier to establish and reinforce among people who have gender in common.” Greater gender diversity within Jordanian institutions would change the organizational dynamics and could loosen some of the inter-male trust that is necessary for illegal or harmful forms of wasta to be practiced.
3. Select specific, politically feasible sectors to work in
Of course, to change male-dominated institutions, it will be necessary to identify which sufficiently powerful individuals or groups would find it in their interest to make institutions more gender-diverse. This means selecting specific sectors to work in, such as those where it would be politically feasible to upend the status-quo. Then, it may require providing incentives for powerful actors to promote inclusion—for instance in the form of tax breaks for businesses that hire more women or awards for public sector leaders who diversify their departments.
As such, this would, again, translate into working with (powerful) men. However, women’s empowerment efforts would clearly also be used as part of this strategy to promote inclusion. And these efforts would possibly also need to be coupled with shifting norms around women’s labor participation, so that having women in the workplace becomes more acceptable for both men and women.
Beyond Jordan: the social norms, gender and corruption nexus
Anti-corruption efforts cannot be based on social norms interventions alone. But understanding the intersection of gender and other social norms is necessary for designing effective integrated strategies. Careful consideration of how institutions and society are structured, and how norms are formed, maintained and shifted will help focus interventions on the right actors, at the right time.
Agata Slota is a Behaviour Change, Research and Communications Advisor at Palladium, a global firm focused on delivering positive social impact. She has over a decade of experience in international development as well as cross-sectoral experience in behaviour change, with a focus on deeply-rooted social challenges, such as corruption and human trafficking. She holds masters degrees in behavioural science and in international affairs.
Zainab Ravat is an Associate at Palladium International, a global company that specialises in international development and works with governments, investors and communities to deliver social progress in over 90 countries. She is experienced in research and business development, and helps design, deliver and manage programmes across Palladium’s thematic practices, including Governance, Education and Skills, Anti-corruption and Economic Growth. She has worked with a range of governmental and non-governmental organisations, including the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), UK’s Home Office, international donors and private sector clients. She holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge.