07. March 2022

Women in anti-corruption enforcement: personal perspectives

International Women's Day image

Initiatives such as International Women’s Day and the International Gender Champions Network, of which our Managing Director is a member, are helping to shift the needle towards a world free of gender-based discrimination. So are moves to mainstream gender in development programmes, including those focused on anti-corruption.

These initiatives not only demand commitments and accountability on gender inclusion, but importantly trigger discussions. One such debate, to which we believe we can usefully contribute our personal experiences, is that of women in anti-corruption enforcement roles.

Gender at the Basel Institute

Our Institute has an equal male-female balance across all our headquarter-based and field operations: exactly 51 men and 51 women at the end of 2021.

Many of our financial investigators and asset recovery specialists engaged in training and mentoring in our partner agencies in Africa, Latin America and Central Europe are female. They span a wide range of professional and cultural backgrounds. Our younger specialists often work hand in hand with older male law enforcement counterparts. Others were among the first women to enter traditionally male-dominated professions, such as in the police or as public prosecutors.

How and why did they choose their careers? What were their experiences and barriers, as women? Should we actively encourage women to take up enforcement roles in agencies mandated to tackle corruption, or in the public prosecution service? And if so, how?

Opinions on these questions differ, but the overall attitude at the Basel Institute is overwhelmingly positive and pragmatic. Below, we briefly share some of our perspectives in the hope that these help trigger similar conversations among our partners and the wider community. And we would love to hear your thoughts too, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch through social media or in any other way.

Formal and cultural barriers are breaking down…

In terms of gender diversity, the anti-corruption field is changing fast and for the better.

Barriers to women entering and advancing in the field are falling away, including both formal rules and biased attitudes. Condescending comments to (often younger) women – “bring me a coffee, dear”; “don’t tell me you’re my lawyer?” – are less and less tolerated in our collective experience. The men who make such comments are dying out.

This positive trend is of course not happening at an equal pace across the world, or fast enough for some. But it is happening.

… yet some prejudices still remain

The hardest barriers to change are the prejudices that remain unspoken, like the idea that women cannot deal with the long hours that could be involved in criminal prosecutions, or are not suited to the cut-and-thrust of the criminal underworld.

A common unspoken fear is that a female staff member will become pregnant and leave the department short-staffed, especially in countries and organisations with outdated labour rules on parenting. Here is perhaps one area where better formal laws and state support mechanisms for maternity/paternity leave and childcare can help.

The family effect

Notwithstanding the caveats around prejudices, family does have a disproportionate effect on many women’s career choices and experiences. This includes their decisions to embark on potentially high-workload careers in enforcement. Some women miss out on taking specialised courses or new job opportunities in other countries or even other regions, either because their spouses would not support it or out of consideration for their families. Even these days, it is less commonly the case for men to miss out on such opportunities for family reasons. And mothers, especially single mothers or those without other support, may have to work much harder than their male counterparts – on far less sleep.

On the positive side, strength, endurance and the ability to multi-task are often the result. These are essential skills in many anti-corruption enforcement or prosecution roles, which involve keeping many plates spinning at once.

Career choices and the female edge

All of our specialists chose their careers in enforcement or the law out of passion and conviction, and were not put off by what appeared a male-dominated world. For many, it was a dream from a young age. Others drifted in from other domains, only to realise that this was the career that matched their skills and desire for variety and satisfaction.

Many feel that their natural empathy helps them better understand and gain the trust of victims and witnesses in some contexts. Fine attention to detail – dare we say this is more common among women than men? – is another useful characteristic in corruption and money laundering investigations and prosecutions. So while in some situations and professions, being female can be seen as a disadvantage, among our female staff many felt their gender gave them a special edge.

Promoting meaningful inclusion

What many women in such roles find unhelpful is to be given a false edge. Many of our female staff have held senior positions at anti-corruption agencies or prosecutorial authorities. They know very well that women are typically less well represented in the upper levels of what is often still a rigid hierarchy.

Yet while measures such as quotas for women’s inclusion have a role to play in some contexts, they may risk raising doubts about whether a woman really did gain her position on merit alone. These kinds of doubts are unhelpful in promoting the respect and confidence that women in these roles deserve and need.

Our own Institute’s exact gender balance is not the result of a deliberate quota, but of our approach to recruitment: we really do choose the best candidate for the position, regardless of gender or any other factor.

Open and equal access to education, both general and specialist, is crucial to helping more women gain the skills and knowledge they need to participate meaningfully in senior legal or enforcement roles. In our small way, we contribute by (for example) making our eLearning courses on Basel LEARN free to all, and by paying close attention to the gender balance of beneficiaries of our training programmes.

Anti-corruption needs more women, but also more men

As to whether we should be doing more to encourage more women to enter anti-corruption professions, the answer is of course yes – but we also need to encourage more men to do the same.

Investigators, prosecutors, judges, analysts, forensic accountants: all of these are on the front lines of fighting corruption. Their ranks need serious reinforcement if we are to fight back against the corruption that is undermining the attainment of just and equal societies. Societies where people of all backgrounds and genders have the opportunity to thrive.