First published in NewsdayAnother pair of elected officials indicted in Albany. For New Yorkers, this registers as something less than earth-rocking. Even as federal prosecutors allege "a broad-based bribery racket" involving state legislators -- State Sen. Carl Kruger and Assemb. William Boyland Jr., two Brooklyn Democrats -- our indignation is lukewarm.
We're almost accustomed to corruption. After all, the count is now at 19 state legislators removed or resigned amid scandal since 2000 -- Sens. Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens) and Pedro Espada (D-Bronx), Assemb. Tony Seminerio (D-Queens), Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer). All gone.
Here's another thing these recent headliners have in common: They're all men. And that makes some people wonder: Are women in public office more honest?
That's certainly the perception and is often the case, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She doesn't know of any count of corruption by gender. But her organization did ask the new batch of state legislators after the last election what had been their primary reason for running. Nationwide, the top motivation for women, chosen by 36 percent, was "concern for one or more specific policy issues." The men's top reason (29 percent), was "a long-standing desire to be involved in politics." That makes Walsh think ego may play a role in corruption: "You can't attribute it all to that, but maybe that's part of it."
But it's worth asking if men really are getting into trouble more often. It's true that we hear about them more -- but then again, they hold the majority of elective offices. Nationwide, women make up just 16 percent of elected officials at the federal level, and 24 percent of state offices. The New York State Legislature tracks with the national figure, roughly, at 22 percent women. And in fact, of those 19 New Yorkers who left the Assembly or Senate in the past 11 years under a cloud of wrongdoing, three were women -- about 16 percent.
"It's true in the public perception that women are more honest," says Christopher Berry, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "But that 16 percent is not really out of step with their proportions."
In 2008, Assemb. Diane Gordon, a Brooklyn Democrat, went to prison for bribery after asking a developer to build her a $500,000 house. Assemb. Gloria Davis, a Bronx Democrat, resigned in 2003 after a bribery conviction. Former state Sen. Ada Smith (D-Brooklyn) was found guilty of harassment in 2006 for throwing a hot cup of coffee at an assistant. She ran again anyway but lost.
Other cultures have also thought about gender differences among elected leaders. India was concerned about its low number of women in public office, and in 1993 passed a rule that one-third of the 265,000 governing village councils must be chaired by women. More than a million women have since been elected to these panchayats, which oversee public services and resolve disputes ranging from marital issues to arguments over property.
One study, by Esther Duflo, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the panchayats led by women were slightly less susceptible to corruption. Villagers, on average, were 1.6 percentage points less likely to try to bribe them -- a difference so small as to be meaningless.
As more American women enter public life and attain higher elected positions, the incidence of bribe-taking and power abuse will probably even out between genders. Greed, vanity and the path of least resistance are human frailties, not gender-linked traits.
Equal, in this case, might not be better -- but it may be inevitable.