Invited Essay: Corruption, Gender, And The Violation Of Public-Private Boundaries

Fauzia Husain

As part of our January newsletter, Fauzia Husain contributes a piece on what corruption studies can teach us about the flow of power in organizations, informed by her research in Pakistan. Fauzia Husain is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia. Her work explores the local and global dynamics of gender, agency and power through a focus on state security. She is also one of the organizers of JTS 2019. 

Over the years several studies have shown gender and corruption to be related, with rates of corruption falling as women’s participation in government rises. Some scholars assume that this relationship is based on gendered traits. Corruption, they argue, is gendered because women are more prone to honesty and good civic sense. Others suggest that not essential gender traits but systemic factors explain the relationship between gender and corruption—it is liberal democracy that explains both, gender integration as well as honest government. In the course of fieldwork with women police in Pakistan, however, I found that the gendered character of corruption might be the outcome not of quantity or propensity but of opportunity and quality. In other words, both men and women do corruption, they just do it differently.

Men’s corruption tends to be bigger, broader and more public. As I discuss in a forthcoming paper, masculine modes of corruption involve relational agency, a capacity for forging and leveraging extensive networks to conduct money and resources both vertically (up and down the hierarchy) and horizontally over broad swaths of space and time. These networks are not only the basis of power, capacity (and masculinity) in this context; they make up the dazzling and grotesque public face of corruption that lends corruption its masculine complexion.

Women’s corruption, in contrast, tends to be more private and personal. Rather than forging networks, women might pay bribes to get out of work, or use an influential contact to finagle less demanding assignments or postings. While men engage in corrupt practices on their own behalf, women are often fielded into these enterprises by male relatives. For instance, one young woman officer I spoke to described a career that was almost entirely managed and coordinated by her father and brother (who were also in the police force). It was the men in her family, she said, who chose the police as a field for her, wangling a way for her to continue drawing a salary and to advance through the ranks, without ever having to go to work. In the future, she said, she had been promised in marriage to her paternal uncle’s son, who was keen to access the various provisions (e.g. housing, health benefits, pension etc.) that a government job provides, through his wife’s office.

Where does this public-private, male-female divide in corruption practices come from? One reason that corruption comes to be gendered in this way is rooted in the gendered arrangement of the social order.  Not corruption, but the rituals and socialities that mediate its various transactions and associations are gendered. Women’s marginalization at corruption is in part shaped by their exclusion from the gendered relational practices that are the basis of trust, mentorship, and mobility for men. Unable or unwilling to smoke with informants at street corners, bond with colleagues over dirty jokes, or schmooze with politicians at drinking parties, women are unable to learn the ins and outs of dirty deal-making, unable to forge connections they can leverage to advance such compacts, and therefore unable to engage in the expansive, dazzling, public kind of activities that give corruption a masculine name.

From an organization, occupations and work perspective, these findings are intriguing not only because they upend some of the key assumptions driving gender-mainstreaming missions in the third world (i.e. that women are more civic minded and honest than men), but also because they rehearse a set of findings now very familiar to scholars of gender and workplace inequality. In study after study, scholars have documented the relational basis of women’s ongoing marginalization in the workplace. Unwelcome, or disinclined to participate in after-work solidary rituals, these studies suggest, women are unable to seek out mentors, gain allies, or win over clients.  Unable or unwilling to join colleagues and clients after work at bars or strip clubs, even women with skills and status may still get left out of the deal (see Jeffreys 2010).

Yet, as Osburg (2018) notes, the relational basis of workplace success is often obscured in western business worlds. Casually dismissed as mere “male bonding” or “networking,” after-hours rituals of conviviality and camaraderie are viewed, at best, as supplementary to the “real work” of business. In Osburg’s view, this masking occurs because of ideological reasons— since emotional labor is equated with femininity and undervalued in the marketplace, its centrality to business achievement is accordingly rendered invisible.

But, the case of corruption suggests, I would argue, a secondary binary that masks the significance of networking to business and financial success. Not just feminized into oblivion, such practices are also analytically bifurcated along west/non-west lines —– described as corruption when observed in third world contexts, after-hours’ wheeling, dealing and schmoozing are dismissed as just networking in the west, and therefore construed as relatively harmless. Whether it is a legacy of orientalism, or the effect of an anticorruption complex deeply invested in constructing corruption as a third world developmental problem requiring first world expertise to define, measure and remedy (see Musaraj 2015), the upshot of this bifurcation is that it obscures a crucial mechanism of gendered exclusion operating in first and third world contexts alike—the public private bait and switch.

Not only are public and private spheres of activity still gendered, their coding continues to be rigged in men’s favor. On the one hand, women leaving the so-called safety of the private sphere for work have been confronted, in Pakistan as in the west, with the challenge of managing problematic advances from men colleagues, who may seek to leverage non-intimate, public interactions for access into the private zone, pushing for an unsolicited and unwelcome intimacy that is an invasion of the private by the public. On the other hand, women are excluded from the intimacies that occur in private to shore up men’s capacities and mobility in the public arena. Excluded from the myriad private rituals and interactions that embed men into the networks that conduct money, connections and resources across public-private boundaries (i.e. between government employees and private citizens), women are excluded from power.

On Wall Street in the wake of the now year old #metoo movement, these boundary violations have begun to overlap more obtrusively. In a backlash many are calling the Pence effect, women’s exclusions from professional relationships crucial to workplace success are now justified as necessary precautions. In other words, one kind of public-private boundary violation (sexual harassment) has become the basis for amplifying a second, also pernicious one (relational exclusion). These boundary operations not only risk bringing a new system of gender segregation into play, they revive the problematic and false mapping of gender binaries onto social space. Women defined as dangerous, are insulated in the public sphere, while it is in the private space of intimacy and male bonding that power is incubated.


Jeffreys, Shiela. 2010. “The Sex Industry and Business Practice: An Obstacle to Women’s Equality.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 33(3), 274 – 282.

Musaraj, Smoki. 2015. Indicators, Global Expertise, And A Local Political Drama: Producing And Deploying Corruption Perception Data In Post-Socialist Albania. In The Quiet Power Of Indicators: Measuring Governance, Corruption, And Rule Of Law. Pp. 222–247 edited by Sally Engle Merry, Kevin E. Davis, and Benedict Kingsbury. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Osburg, John. 2018. “Making Business Personal: Corruption, Anti-Corruption, and Elite Networks in Post-Mao China.” Current Anthropology 59 (suppl. 18):149–154.




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