Can Women Solve FIFA’s Corruption Problem?

We thought we had seen the last of Sepp Blatter. The notorious embattled FIFA boss who is reportedly under criminal investigation in the United States after several of his compatriots were arrested on corruption charges related to World Cup bidding process, has yet again found himself in a media storm. In early June, Blatter had promised to relinquish his presidency, but as of late has been making news for renouncing his decision to resign, giving life to speculations he might stand for re-election. This is the last thing FIFA wants as it finds itself in crisis mode, seeking refuge from the global scrutiny and spotlight.

Ironically, FIFA’s day of reckoning and Blatter’s most recent go-around with the press coincides with another important event, the Women’s World Cup happening in Canada. And while many fans of women’s soccer lament the overshadowing effects of Blatter and the organization’s misdeeds, the “[Women’s World Cup] can come to represent the antithesis of the scandal” says soccer analyst Alexi Lalas.

The serendipitous timing of these two contrasting events may be just what FIFA needs to finally realize how much they need women both on the pitch and in the boardroom.

In the face of limited support, unequal pay, relegation to inferior venues and conditions, and even at times outright misogyny on the part of FIFA, the Women’s World Cup continues to grow–drawing more and more fans. With each consecutive stage of this year’s competition crushing previously held viewing records, it is clear that women’s soccer is here to stay. In the US, a country notoriously known for its soccer indifference, a record 5.7 million people tuned in to watch the U.S. defeat China in the quarter-final, a 73% increase from the U.S.’s opener game against Australia with 3.3 million viewers, which was also a record-breaker.  The US’s heavyweight semi-final match against Germany tonight is expected to draw even more viewers.

The World Cup’ celebration of its participant’s strength, determination, and elite athleticism has bucked simplistic and single narratives of the world’s women.  Despite news coverage portrayal of Nigeria’s women as subjugated victims and second-class citizens, Nigeria’s Super Falcons were anything but, catching the attention and adoration of soccer fans worldwide with their unrivaled athleticism, joy, charisma, and general “badassness”. Despite being ranked 33rd, the Super Falcons tied 2nd ranked Sweden in their opener, where they dominated possession, showed true creativity and composure beyond their young years, and frankly outplayed Sweden.

Needless to say, the fans have spoken—women’s soccer is in, FIFA is out.

Beyond the obvious public relations and economic benefits that FIFA will enjoy if they unequivocally hitch their wagon to the bright future of women’s soccer, and ditch the old and tired ways of Blatter and his cronies, there are the added benefits of incorporating women into their leadership structure—namely less corruption.

It is no secret that FIFA has long been averse to women at the helm. It was only in 2013, that the first EVER (and only) woman was elected to FIFA’s executive committee, with two others joining her in non-elected, co-opted positions with limited power and one-year appointments. This, relatively small and empty gesture, was prompted by more egregious failures of previous reform efforts. A month prior, Alexandra Wrange, an expert in corporate anti-corruption initiatives and member of FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee (IGC) resigned over FIFA’s failure to adopt meaningful measures to enhance transparency and strengthen internal oversight. Among FIFA’s problems, Wrange cited blatant sexism, recounting two senior officials telling her to stop proposing female candidates for FIFA’s ethics committee, suggesting they would never be seen as viable candidates given their gender.

Despite FIFA’s best efforts to keep women out of senior positions, research suggests that women may be just what FIFA needs to meaningfully tackle (to use a soccer term) its corrupt and discriminatory tendencies.

Research consistently finds that with increased presence of women in senior leadership roles comes less corruption. This is not to say that women are more virtuous or less corruptible, rather, it is to say that opening up roles to outside candidates is more likely to create a more open environment with greater transparency and in effect break up the “old boy’s network”. Of course, correlation always brings up the question of causality. Do women reduce corruption, or is greater female representation a reflection or result of more democratic, less corrupt institutions? Researchers from Rice and Emory University believe that it is the presence and representation of women within an organization that acts as a democratic litmus test. And democratic institutions are less accepting of blatant or open corruption.

Either way, it is clear that what FIFA needs now more than anything is a meaningful elevation of women within their halls and on their fields.