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Women in the EU face greater barriers to speaking up against corruption

New evidence shows that women are less likely to report corruption and seek redress than men

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Head and shoulders photo of Marie Chene
Marie Chene

Head of Research and Knowledge, Transparency International

In 2021, Transparency International surveyed more than 40,000 people in the 27 European Union (EU) countries on their perceptions and experiences of corruption. A gender analysis of this Global Corruption Barometer data provides a unique insight into how women in the EU experience corruption in their daily lives and the challenges they face when they speak up against it.

Only 44 per cent of women in the EU think they can report corruption without fear of retaliation. This fear is shared by women from various backgrounds, irrespective of their age, education, how informed they are or whether they live in urban or rural areas.

Their perspective is justified by recent experiences of female whistleblowers in Europe. During the first wave of COVID-19, Polish midwife, Renata Piżanowska, had to wear a home-made mask of a paper towel and rubber bands during a hospital shift. She posted on Facebook about the shortages in masks, overalls and gloves the institution faced, and was fired two days later.

In 2013, Céline Boussié denounced serious abuses of children with multiple disabilities in a social-health centre in the south west of France. While the investigations confirmed systematic ill-treatment of the children by the institution, Ms Boussié lost her job. Prosecuted for defamation by her former employer, she was finally cleared by the Toulouse Criminal Court in 2017.

Blowing the whistle on corruption can expose women to similar forms of retaliation.

Percentage of respondents who think that people can report corruption without fear of retaliation. In the EU: 50% men and 44% women. In Latin America and the Caribbean: 53% men and 47% women. In Asia: 43% men and 42% women.

Why are women in Europe are less likely to report corruption than men?

Unsurprisingly, confronted with the risk of losing their job, being sued by their employer and other reprisals like harassment, many women think twice before calling out wrongdoing. This includes reporting corruption, which women in the EU do less than men – only 30 per cent of the corruption cases handled by our Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres between 2011 and 2021 in the EU were reported by women. This is in line with women’s 34 per cent share of complaints received worldwide by these centres, which provide free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption.

Both men and women face potential retaliation when reporting corruption, and there is no evidence that male whistleblowers suffer less severe consequences.

However, there are indications that women tend to be more risk-averse than men. The reasons for this vary. Some theorise that these differences may be linked to gender-related social roles. Women, as the largely primary care-givers of children and the elderly, may feel a greater sense of responsibility for those under their care, making them more risk-averse. This can make them less likely to report corruption because they fear consequences that could affect their care giving.

Others speculate that women experience greater pressure to conform to social norms about corruption and reporting it because discrimination against them makes their position more precarious, holds them to higher standards and they are likely to be punished more harshly for rule breaking. Others point to the difference in the socialisation of boys and girls, that encourages girls to behave “properly” while rewarding some forceful behaviours shown by boys. As a result, women are more likely to strongly experience the stress and anxiety associated with exposing corruption.

Women also face gender-based obstacles to reporting

Fear of retaliation is not the only reason why women are less likely to report corruption in the EU.

Reporting corruption costs time and money. Due to their social roles, women continue to take a disproportionate share of household and care-giving responsibilities, especially during the pandemic. They have less time than men to engage in public life and social accountability mechanisms, and may not have the time to file a complaint.

Reporting corruption also costs money for travel, accommodation, taking time off work and seeking childcare. Female victims/survivors considering filing lawsuits to obtain justice face the costs of judicial taxes, court fees and representation, and lack of adequate and affordable legal aid for women. Not all women in Europe have access to family income or have an independent income, and they earn on average 14 per cent less than men for each hour worked. The financial burden associated with reporting corruption may prevent them from speaking up.

Women are not always aware of their rights and legal entitlements and many lack knowledge of where and how to report corruption. Throughout the world, they are also more pessimistic about the outcome of reporting corruption and are less likely to think that appropriate action would be taken in response to a report. These pessimistic views could be linked to women’s perceived lack of voice and sense of empowerment to act against corruption. In Europe, women are significantly less likely than men to believe that ordinary people can make a difference in anti-corruption.

Can ordinary people make a difference? 67% of  men agree and 61% of women agree. Are their views taken into account by governments? 32% of men agree and 28% of women agree.

The features of the reporting channel can also create additional barriers to women’s reporting. They may lack confidence in the reporting mechanisms’ safety and credibility, as well as responsiveness and sensitivity to their needs. They may distrust the institution or individual handling their grievance or doubt that their complaint will be taken seriously. Women may also be tempted to drop their cases if they experience a lack of follow-up from the case handler.

When interacting with the judicial system, it is not rare that women – especially those in groups exposed to discrimination – experience gender bias and dismissive attitudes in courts or inadequate legal support that may dissuade them further from seeking redress.

Additional obstacles for victims/survivors of sextortion

These challenges are worsened when seeking redress for specific forms of corruption that disproportionally affect women, like sextortion – when those with power use it to sexually exploit those dependent on that power. In Europe, 74 per cent of people think that sextortion occurs at least occasionally and seven per cent of people report either having experienced it directly or knowing someone who has.

Reporting mechanisms are often ill-equipped to handle the trauma, social stigma and cultural taboos associated with sexual abuse and let victims/survivors down in various ways. Many fail to provide female points of contact for women feeling uncomfortable about reporting abuse to a man. Victims/survivors can be re-victimised, having to re-live the trauma throughout long reporting processes, while others find themselves being blamed for the abuse or not being believed and taken seriously. In many cases, victims/survivors of sexual abuse don’t receive the adequate financial, psychological or legal support that they need.

Conviction rates for sexual violence are also notoriously low in Europe due to a combination of factors, including low reporting rates, insufficient quality of investigations, re-victimisation, gender stereotypes and lack of training of officials. This lowers many victims/survivors’ confidence that they will obtain redress through the justice system, further discouraging women from reporting acts of sextortion.

Taking down the barriers that women face

We recommend that governments in the EU take the following actions to address these challenges:

  • Collect, analyse and disseminate gender disaggregated data to identify and address gendered patterns of corruption and reporting, giving special consideration to groups of women that are more vulnerable to corruption.
  • Provide accessible, affordable, safe, effective and gender-sensitive reporting mechanisms that take into consideration the specific challenges women face in the EU when reporting corruption.
  • Create effective and gender-sensitive whistleblowing laws and policies with strong anti-retaliation protections and confidentiality provisions, in line with the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive.
  • Recognise sextortion as a form of corruption, equip corruption reporting mechanisms to handle sextortion cases and provide psycho-social and legal support to victims of physical and sexual violence at all levels of the reporting process and the criminal justice system.
  • Promote the representation of women and groups at risk of discrimination in corruption reporting mechanisms as well as in law enforcement and justice institutions, especially for investigating, prosecuting or adjudicating gender-based violence and sex crimes.

For detailed analysis and a full list of recommendations, read our paper on Finding a Voice, Seeking Justice: the Barriers Women Face to Reporting Corruption in Europe.