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Gender Norms, Social Norms and Corruption: Exploring the Link

Paul Bukuluki, Professor of Social Sciences at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda

In this blog I ask how gender norms intersect with broader social norms to influence corrupt behavior. Plainly put: when fulfilling gender norms, do men and women have a different relationship with corruption?  


Understanding this is important for two reasons: first, the disproportionate damage that corrupt practices—from bribery to sextortion and many others—inflict on women and men; and second, because it affects the success of efforts to change the social norms that drive corrupt practices.  


The blog forms part of ‘An Intersectional Approach to Social Norms that Drive Corruption’, a research project under way at CJL in partnership with the Abuja-based Policy Innovation Centre. The project is an in-depth exploration of these issues, and for which I led a literature review to understand how social norms interact with both gender and faith norms to influence corrupt behavior. (The faith theme will feature in CJL’s next blog as a continuation of this conversation.)

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The literature review involved a document search on the abstract and citation database Scopus, spanning 2013-2023. The search yielded 139 publications, but only 25 of these addressed all aspects of the question. We also put out a call for grey literature on the subject.   


The review yielded some interesting and underreported findings—suggesting three ways in which gender norms may influence corrupt behavior.   


1. Expectations to fulfil gender norms make engaging in corrupt behavior more likely for both men and women


Gender norms, together with the social sanctions (rewards and punishments) that sustain them, push men and women to use a variety of means to fulfil these norms. In the process, they are at greater risk of engaging in corrupt behavior. 


In an earlier study I led in Uganda, it was found that the high social expectations assigned to men—like providing for the family and extended family, and owning large cattle herds, big houses and land—make them susceptible to engaging in corrupt behavior. Study participants noted that a man is applauded if he amasses wealth and uses it to fulfil other gender norms, like supporting his kin, in-laws and members of his social network. If he fails at this, he is socially sanctioned as not being ‘smart and creative’ and, importantly, he is failing as a man.   

"In circumstances where gender roles are fulfilled through corrupt behavior, families, communities and informal social networks are not likely to apply social sanctions."

Another study analysing gender and corruption in sub-Saharan Africa established that women are more likely to pay bribes for fulfilling their home-making role, while men are more likely to pay bribes to bureaucracies or the police for fulfilling their roles as breadwinners and providers. The fear of sanctions if they fail to perform these roles that define them as the ideal wife, mother, daughter or daughter-in law, or husband, father or son-in-law—incentivizes them to pay bribes or bend the rules as they see fit.   


Gender norms can push women into exchanging sex for favors from public servants. If it is deemed necessary, they will resort to sextortion to access services otherwise being denied them. Research in Kenya shows that it is typical for women to date men and offer them sex to win tenders or secure other favors. (A previous CJL blog looked at women in Jordan, who go through intermediaries to lessen the risk  of sextortion.)  


2. The means used (including corruption) to meet these expectations are less likely to be sanctioned than the failure to meet them 

In circumstances where gender roles are fulfilled through corrupt behavior, families, communities and informal social networks are not likely to apply social sanctions. This holds even if the behavior were sanctioned by legal anti-corruption frameworks. The social control mechanisms (rewards and sanctions) enforced by reference groups, particularly in one’s informal social network, are thus more concerned with fulfilling gender norms than regulating the means of meeting these expectations—including corrupt behavior. In fact, members of social networks in close interaction with people who engage in corruption are more likely to celebrate and applaud them for being creative and resourceful, and less interested in how they do it. When powerful members with loud voices endorse this behavior, the messaging is amplified.   


In fact, it is often people who encourage the social network to question the means—the ‘positive deviants’—who risk negative social sanctions. They may be rejected from the group or scorned for being jealous. This pushback experienced by people who are advocating for non-corrupt behavior may cause them to doubt that it is worth it. They may even struggle to fulfil their own gender roles because they are trying to avoid all corrupt behavior.  


Participants in a 2013 Ugandan study referred to a popular Uganda language proverb that demeans a poor son-in-law. (“Omuko Omwanvu ye ayasa enku ku buuko”: “It is a poor son-in-law who does donkey work at the home of his father-in-law.”) Here, this severe sanctioning pressurizes sons-in-law to do whatever it takes (including corruption) to provide for their in-laws. And if the son-in-law behaves in a corrupt way to achieve this end, negative social sanctions are unlikely.   


The same is often true for women who engage in corrupt behavior to fulfil their gender roles. A study on absenteeism in Nigeria’s health system found that even though official sanctions applied in cases of absenteeism among health workers are supposed to be the same, informally, female health workers were being treated more leniently, especially if their absence was linked to domestic and care responsibilities. The implication is that when males try to justify their absenteeism for performing domestic roles that are perceived to be ‘women’s work’, they would be more severely sanctioned at work. 


3. Gender norms lead women to choose more covert methods of engaging in corrupt behavior  


As much as it is upheld that women are less likely to engage in corruption compared to men —because they are supposedly more risk averse and fear negative consequences —this is in fact not the case. When the fulfilment of their gender roles is at risk, they are as likely as men to engage in corrupt behavior. Not fulfilling gendered expectations would attract more severe negative social sanctions than corruption. However, women tend to use more covert (indirect) means when engaging in corruption to fulfil gender roles—such as through their husbands, brothers, or fathers, friends and work peers. The expectation that women should engage less in corruption than men (gender norm) may expose them to more severe social sanctions if they do exhibit overt corrupt behavior.  


Where does this leave us?  


Despite the ideas that are emerging clearly from the literature, important questions remain.  


  • As women move increasingly out of the home into the formal world of work, are they more likely to be exposed to informal networks and actors that drive and influence corruption?  


  • As more women become public servants, bureaucrats and elected officials, is there more abuse of power or authority by women?  


  • As women transition from more traditional roles into the formal realm as duty bearers, how, if at all, are their significant reference groups reconstructing their gendered expectations and associated social sanctions?  


Overall, this exploration calls for a comprehensive understanding of two key factors for more effective anti-corruption programming:  

  • Gender norms, as well as the rewards and sanctions that sustain them; and 

  • The role of informal social networks in enforcing social sanctions that incentivize corrupt behavior.  


This understanding will make it easier to work with the informal networks that are pivotal in determining and enforcing social norms, to create healthier norms and to devise more targeted anti-corruption programs.   


Paul Bukuluki is CJL’s team lead for our research on 'Intersectional approaches to social norms driving corruption.' He is also a Professor at Makerere University, School of Social Sciences, a Social Worker, and Medical Anthropologist with 20 years of experience in implementation research. He has expertise in social/gender norms research and programming in various fields including governance (specifically corruption), social protection, gender-based violence prevention and response, and adolescent sexual and reproductive and migration health in Africa. Paul has contributed to several governance-related research projects that focus on social norms and corruption in East Africa including: 'Petty corruption in the public sector: A comparative study of three East African countries through a behavioural lens'; 'Recognizing local leaders as an anti-corruption strategy: Experimental and ethnographic evidence from Uganda'; 'Perceptions of per diems in the health sector: evidence and implications'; 'Behavioural influences on attitudes towards petty corruption: A study of social norms and mental models in Uganda; 'Investigating the relationships between collectivism and corruption related behaviour'; and 'Intersections between social norms, gender norms and faith norms influencing corrupt behaviours in Nigeria'.


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