“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot” – Czeslaw Milosz
Every year United States news magazine and website TIME features a person, a group, an idea, or an object as ‘Person of the Year’ and for the year 2002, three women were given this title – Cynthia Cooper, Sherron Watkins, and Coleen Rowley – and the edition was called ‘The Whistleblowers’. Cynthia, Sherron, and Collen were chosen for this title because they were the whistle-blowers of large organizations – WorldCom, Enron, and FBI respectively. TIME described them as the “three women of ordinary demeanor but exceptional guts and sense”. Since then, many high-profile whistle-blowers have been making space in the news headlines, especially from the giant tech industries, like – Frances Haugen, who exposed Meta for exploitation of personal data, Timnit Gebru and Rebecca Rivers, who challenged Google on ethics and AI issues and Janneke Parrish, who raised concerns about the discriminatory work culture at Apple. Looking at the data of all the big tech industry whistleblowers, a conclusion was made that most of the whistleblowers in tech industries were women! So, does that mean women are more likely to be whistleblowers than their male peers? The answer is not so straightforward.
Who are whistleblowers? A whistleblower is a person who comes forward and discloses information on any wrongdoing that might be happening in an organization as a whole or even in just one specific department of the organization. In short, they spill the beans. This person could be anyone who witnesses any sort of malfeasance, an employee, a government agency, a contractor, or even a supplier. A whistleblower can be categorized as internal or external based on whom they report the misconduct to. If it is reported to senior officers of the organization like the HR Head or CEO then it is called internal whistleblowing and if reported to people outside of the organization like media, police, or government then it is called external whistleblowing. Clearly, whistleblowing is not a gender-specific vocation but an opportunity to call out frauds.
According to an article published in Fortune magazine, women whistleblowers are different from men in possessing certain attributes which are beneficial to the trade:
- Their way of tolerating risk: Research on gender and risk by Judy Rosener, a professor emerita at the University of California Irvine states that “Women tend to see the downside of risk while men tend to see the upside, which means women tend to take less risk”. As a result, women are less likely to tolerate workplace shenanigans and ethical uncertainty. Some experimental studies and attitudinal surveys also show that women are directly associated with a lower incidence of bribery.
- Their motherhood gene: As discriminatory as it sounds, many people believe that women have certain “genes” which make them more inclined to defend those in weaker positions. In a corporate setup these would be, mistreated employees, cheated customers, or deceived shareholders.
- Their outsider’s status: It is now a known fact that women often feel like outsiders in their own companies. This is largely because even though women are at the helm of giant industries, they still constitute only a minor proportion of the entire workforce and even less in the leadership positions. Consequently, they might feel less loyal towards their employers.
If we look carefully at the above-mentioned points, it is very likely that all these arguments came from the way men and women are socialized into different gender roles in society and the way we picture them.
While there might be reasons for women to become whistleblowers, there are also some points why women might hold back from doing so. Women who fear the consequences of reporting misconduct have a good reason to be cautious as studies show that female whistleblowers have to experience more retaliation than male whistleblowers. A 2008 study published in the journal Organization Science, examined whether a whistleblower’s gender and level of power in the organization can affect the probability of facing retaliation and it was concluded that a woman’s level of power and authority didn’t protect her from retaliation but there was a significant correlation in the males that the more powerful they were, the less retaliation they experienced.
Most companies now have separate policies for people to be able to safely report incidents without losing their job or getting mistreated by their bosses or colleagues. Today, even government and media tend to support whistleblowers with the typical portrayal being ‘a brave individual is willing to risk their personal fall-out to ensure safety and justice for others’. However, this was not always the way whistleblowers were seen.
For a very long time, lawmakers viewed whistleblowers as individuals who were unfaithful to their work and organization. The courts prioritized an employee’s “duty of loyalty” above their efforts to help the public. In 1982, a Texas court said it was okay for a nursing home to lay off an aid who complained that her boss didn’t seek a doctor for a resident after that resident’s stroke because it was suggested that the aid violated her duty of loyalty by making her complaint. This massive shift from old beliefs to the contemporary world’s priorities took decades to happen.
Whistleblowing is a complicated situation to analyze as its public manifestation is just the tip of the iceberg and most of the whistleblowing is confidential. Since most of the data on whistleblowing is anonymous, the conclusion on the influence of gender on whistleblowing is not very accurate. There are just hints, rather than hard evident data. All this could totally be a confirmation bias where the concept of female whistleblowers perfectly fits the portrait the society has created of women being more altruistic and morally virtuous than men.
More than the relation of gender in whistleblowing what’s important is that whistleblower protection should be strengthened so that more people step forward and help towards a better, less risky, and more regulated future.