Héctor Portillo and Sebastián Molano grew up in Mexico and Colombia respectively, countries where corruption is normalized to the point where not engaging in it is not only considered rare but naïve. They say that their countries also have deeply embedded cultures of sexism and machismo, noting that their “personal experiences with sexism, masculinities, and corruption motivated [them] to explore how the expectations, pressures, and privileges of ‘being a man’ can encourage or deter an individual’s engagement in corruption.”

The ideals men and boys are expected to live up to are called “masculinities.” Masculinities are socially constructed and reinforced, they vary by time, place, and community, and have hierarchies—“some forms are prized as being more valuable for men and boys to aspire than others.” These expectations “often put men under pressure” to conform to prevailing masculine ideals, which may or may not be what individual men would otherwise aspire to.

Some of the expectations of what it means to be a man may translate into violent and/or self-destructive behaviors. Those expectations have been described as “toxic masculinities”— defined as those where manhood is formed by a cocktail of violence, sex, status and aggression. They are often associated with risky behaviors (higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse) and prone to engage in violence (e.g. sexual violence, violent crime). In a 2015 presentation to the United Nations on masculinities and gun violence, the sociologist Michael Kimmel, executive director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, suggested that these expressions of manhood become socialized—that is, they are not just internalized by the individual, but also replicated by society.

Male Attitudes Toward Corruption

We believe that male attitudes toward corruption can be analyzed through three mechanisms. We present them as separate for conceptual clarity, but believe they interact with and possibly reinforce each other:

  1. Corruption as a male privilege;
  2. Corruption as a male performance of power and domination; and
  3. Corruption as a pathway for men to fulfill society’s expectation of them to “provide.”

Corruption as Male Privilege

Let’s start with the proposition that gender inequality exists in most societies, and that this translates into men wielding more/ most power—especially, “entrusted power” (i.e. political/policy power)—than women. Thus, men hold most of the resources and networks that maintain and give access to power. Most women, then, do not engage in corruption because they are unable to tap into the structures and networks that men have access to. In this sense corruption, “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain,” presents itself as a male privilege.

Corruption as a Male Performance of Power and Domination

The social definitions of what being a man looks (and feels) like are frequently correlated to power. If what we understand to be “manly” is toxic and what we understand as “power” is also thought of as “manly,” then the toxicity may permeate to power as well. Corruption, then, would be more likely where men are expected (and rewarded) for using their power over others; it would be a consequence and a symptom of toxic understandings of what it means to be a man, for men would understand corruption as another way to prove their manliness through power.

orruption as a Pathway for Men to Fulfill Society’s Expectation to “Provide”

Our final proposed mechanism stems from the assumption that men are expected to provide for their families, and that their notion of value is tied to fulfilling this role. However, as is the case in most of the world, only a small proportion of the population can meet all their needs. Although this pressure is true for both men and women, the expected role of provider (and sometimes sole provider) while changing, is still often masculine.

Studies have shown that, in extreme situations of poverty and/or conflict, when men are unable to fill the role of provider (a role they consider quintessential to their identity as men) they are likelier to engage in self-destructive behaviors or to join criminal enterprises or armed groups. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to imagine that some men in positions of relative power (lower-level public officials, for example) might engage in corruption to fulfill their role as providers. In some contexts, engaging in corruption practices can be a coping mechanism for individuals who are part of a power structure.

Of course, there is nothing new in the notion that one of the reasons for some individuals to engage in corruption is economic distress or need. However, understanding how the economic pressures are gendered (i.e. different for men and women) may help understand how the mechanisms through which these pressures lead to corruption are themselves gendered.

However, it is also common to see men in high-level positions acting corruptly. In their case, the power attached to the positions they hold, the social networks they belong to, or their last names cover them with a veil of protection from the law. Different hierarchies of power among men engaging in corrupt practices may vary in scope and magnitude but the effects are the same: mistrust, impunity, and undermining democracy.

Interactions Across Mechanisms

As we suggest, the three mechanisms we have proposed interact with each other:

  1. Access to positions of relative power or influence from which men can engage in corruption is an extension of male privilege.
  2. The way men use (and abuse) said power for their private gain will be informed by a (masculinized and possibly toxic) understanding of how they ought to wield power.
  3. Corruption is a possible pathway for individuals holding positions of relative power to earn additional income and/or solidify their positions and networks of power, allowing them to provide more resources for their families.

Can Gender Equality Decrease Corruption?

This exploration of masculinity and corruption leaves us asking this question: Can gender equality decrease corruption? While further research is needed to construct an evidence-based answer, our analysis suggests that as social understandings of power and (toxic) masculinities become dissociated from each other, corruption’s appeal as a (male) performance of power will diminish. Likewise, as men’s identity is less associated with the role of provider, pressures to engage in corruption may diminish.

Gender Equality Is Not Enough

Gender equality may reduce men’s use of corruption as a mechanism to exert power and domination over women, but it won’t necessarily reduce men’s (and women’s) use of corruption as a mechanism to use power to dominate other people. As gender equality advances, corruption will stop being a male privilege and become available for both men and women with power.

Programs addressing corruption or gender equality would be advised to consider the interplay of the two subjects. Existing and future programs on masculinities could be adjusted to incorporate notions of power and the construction of masculinity as a strategy to better engage with anti-corruption work. To the best of our knowledge, this approach has not yet been examined in a purposeful, measurable way. We hope raising these questions will inspire other researchers and practitioners to explore how work on masculinities and corruption might better complement each other in the days ahead.

A version of this article first appeared in CDA Perspectives, www.blog.cdacollaborative.org.



Héctor Portillo is involved in a variety of peace-building programs in Guerrero and Michoacán, two of the most violent states in Mexico. He received a BA in political science from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he focused on the intersections of gender and conflict resolution. He is currently Project Coordinator for Catholic Relief Services Mexico.
Sebastián Molano, a gender advisor for Oxfam America, has worked on development issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. He received a master’s degree in NGO management and human security from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is the founder of Defying Gender Roles, an advocacy initiative that challenges harmful gender roles, gender norms, and traditional notions of masculinity.