It’s been one month since FIFA combusted on the world stage, implicating the governing body’s highest-ranking leadership in massive-scale corruption and cronyism. So far, 14 individuals—including seven FIFA officials—have been indicted, and none of them are women. Maybe that’s because there’s only one woman serving as a full-time member of the governing soccer organization’s executive board.
Or maybe that’s because women are, broadly speaking, less corruptible.
Over the past two decades, researchers have been investigating whether women are as susceptible to corruption and bribery than their male counterparts. “[A] higher women’s share in parliament is associated with lower levels of corruption,” a University of Maryland study stated emphatically in 1999.
The assertion was supported by a World Bank survey the following year, which looked at 150 countries and agreed that women in power appear to be less prone to corruption and are more trustworthy.
Two years ago, Alexandra Wrage, a member of FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee, criticized the organization for not implementing reforms that would cut down on potential for corruption. In the same breath, she also outlined incidents in which she was told by “very, very senior” executives that candidates for FIFA positions were not appropriate because they were female. Until 2013, FIFA’s executive committee didn’t have a single female member.
Now, both of her findings have come to a head. Its endemic corruption exposed—the U.S. Department of Justice investigation found claims of $150 million in bribes and racketeering by leadership over the past 24 years—FIFA is in need of a full-scale cleanse. With President Sepp Blatter set to resign later this year, can a woman take FIFA’s reins and revamp its culture?
In response to the initial research on gender and corruption in the late ’90s, countries including Peru and Mexico targeted women to join their most notoriously corrupt institutions, like the traffic police force. But since then, scientific conclusions have swayed. A decade later, researchers again delved into the geographic specifics and decided that the generalization of women as incorruptible isn’t so clear cut.
Some theorized that women are less likely to be corrupt because, as traditional caregivers, they are risk averse. Due to discrimination, they’re also more susceptible to punishment for flouting the rules. Watchdogs at Transparency International found that, across the world, women were at least viewed as less corrupt.
But a 2013 study in the journal Politics & Gender found that this hinged on whether the woman in question was working under a democracy or an autocracy. In the latter, a woman was “equally susceptible” to corruption as a man.
“Recruiting women into government positions will not reduce corruption wherever participation in corrupt activities aids in selection for and retention in government office (as in many autocratic regimes),” the study argued. “Female participation in government would only reduce corruption in functional democracies where the electorate tends to punish corruption via removal from office.”
These autocratic regimes typically have more gender imbalance and fewer female leaders. On the other hand, nations with women in power are already operating with more transparency, the researchers theorized.
“Where countries have made advances in women’s empowerment and gender equality, they have witnessed lower levels of corruption over time,” a 2014 report by Transparency International concluded.
The research isn’t black and white, but one thing is certain: FIFA, as it stands, wouldn’t even have a large enough sample size of women in positions of power to even qualify as a case study. The international soccer governing body has only begrudgingly appointed any women to high-level positions.
“Football is very macho,” Blatter said last year. “It’s so difficult to accept [women] in the game. Not playing the game, but in the governance.”
It wasn’t until 2013 that FIFA, under internationals pressure, set aside one voting seat on its executive committee for a woman, and also created two positions for short-term, non-elected committee members. According to FIFA President Sepp Blatter, the quotas were needed because the six regional confederations would not choose a woman of their own initiative.
Blatter started the FIFA Task Force for Women’s Football in 2013, and has since launched a number of gender equality initiatives.
“More than 30 million girls and women play football around the world,” Blatter said during the FIFA Women’s Football and Leadership Conference, which debuted in March. “It is our duty to drive this growth to its full potential. It is our duty to make sure that there is equal opportunity for all across our member associations.”
This past June the organization launched the Female Leadership Development Program, with Blatter urging the organization to “increase the number of female leaders and role models in football.”
He’s painted himself as a fighter for women’s rights within the sport, but that doesn’t mean he’s not also a perpetrator of soccer’s “macho” culture. Take, for instance, this mind-blowing comment about female players from 2004: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes, like they do in volleyball,” he said. “They could, for example, have tighter shorts.”
Blatter once called Maya Dodd, the first woman elected to FIFA’s executive committee, “a good-looking candidate.”
As the U.S. women’s cup team takes on Japan on Sunday, it’s clear women have asserted their place on the field—now more than ever. The number of viewers tuning in for the Women’s World Cup has reached record-breaking highs.
Meanwhile, as Japan toppled England in the semifinals on Thursday, the United States requested the extradition of seven FIFA officials, including three of whom are current or former members of the executive committee. Sepp Blatter could be next. He’s set to resign this year, and perhaps his policies have paved the way for a female successor. If she transformed FIFA into a trustworthy institution, it could be the ultimate example to solidify years of research.