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Research and Development: Why do Women Police Reduce Corruption Perceptions?

In honor of International Women’s Day we are debuting the series with an exciting new study on stereotypes about women and perceptions of police corruption: 

Barnes, Tiffany D., Emily Beaulieu, and Gregory W. Saxton. 2018. “Restoring Trust in the Police: Why Female Officers Reduce Suspicions of Corruption.” Governance 31 (1):143–61. https://doi.org/10.1111/gove.12281.

What’s the argument?

A lot of studies show that higher numbers of women in government tend to be associated with reduced perceptions of corruption, but it’s not clear why. The authors identify and test three distinct gender stereotypes that might lead people to believe women are less corrupt:

  • The belief that women are more ethical and honest
  • The belief that women are political outsiders
  • The belief that women are risk-averse

How do they do this?

They designed an experiment to test these gender stereotypes. They surveyed 1,105 individuals using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk), a platform that allows individuals to complete menial tasks (like completing a survey) for a small fee. Respondents were randomly assigned to one of four experimental groups:

  • Control group: Respondents were told that the Mexico City police recently hired more women in traffic enforcement in an attempt to reduce corruption.
  • Honesty group: Respondents received the information provided to the control group with the additional statement, “Because women are believed to be more honest, the police department hopes this will reduce bribes.”
  • Outsider Status group: Received the information provided to the control group, with the additional statement, “Because women aren’t part of male officers’ established personal and professional networks, the police department hopes this will reduce bribes.”
  • Risk Aversion group: Received the information provided to the control group, with the additional statement, “Because women are believed to be more risk-averse, the police department hopes this will reduce bribes.”

All respondents were then asked to rate their expectations of effectiveness of the strategy to hire more women in traffic enforcement, with the response options of; “very successful,” “somewhat successful,” “not too successful,” and “not at all successful.” Since respondents were randomly assigned to the experimental groups, any differences in responses between groups is due to the impact of the various stereotypes activated through messaging.

What was the conclusion?

Women are indeed perceived as more effective in combating corruption and that this perception increases when the stereotypes about women as political outsiders and risk-averse are activated in a survey prompt.

How seriously should I take this?

The experiment suggests links between particular gender stereotypes and corruption perceptions, but this study alone likely is not conclusive. There is some evidence that research with MTurk samples confirm the results of other surveys and experiments, but this sample probably does not represent the population of any one country.

Gender stereotypes are based on culture, politics, societal norms, religion, and other region-specific variables. Therefore, there may be additional gender stereotypes or other factors that the authors did not test that lead people to associate women with lower police corruption. Other things to consider: gender-based double standards for recruitment, promotion, and accountability.

Finally, this experiment tests the effects of stereotypes on the perception of corruption but says nothing about whether women in police forces actually reduce corruption.  

So now what? Take Homes for Programming                                                        

  • Trust in the police is important. The authors emphasize that when people trust the police, the police themselves tend to be more effective, citizens are more likely to comply with the law, and crime victims are more likely to seek assistance, especially women who have been victims of domestic or sexual violence.
  • The relationship between corruption and trust is key to achieving long-term stability and good governance. If citizens perceive women as less corrupt, implementers promoting increased recruitment of women in government, legislative bodies, political parties, and security services leads to more than one positive outcome. Addressing issues of inclusion and equality in this case, happens to carry over into success in programming for anti-corruption and transparent governance.
  • There is a significant and growing body of evidence on the link between women in government and lower perceptions of corruption. This evidence can be leveraged to push for more inclusive practices by politicians, parties, civil society organizations, and other partners.
  • An important finding in this study is that women in security services do not necessarily reduce corruption perceptions because people see women as more trustworthy. Rather, recruitment initiatives for women in government should emphasize their political outsider status if the goal is to increase trust in government.

Homework: For Further Reading

Countries with representation of women in parliament experience lower corruption.

The women’s representation-corruption link is highest in democracies because a) women are more risk averse on average and b) voters hold women to a higher standard.

Corruption is high where women’s representation is low because male-dominated corruption networks influence political parties’ candidate selection.

Research and Development is a semi-regular feature on Democracy Speaks that highlights cutting edge, peer-reviewed research that is particularly relevant for Democracy and Governance (D&G) practitioners.