Whistleblowers: Women Experience More Retaliation Than Men, Study Reports

Women in technology who wish to blow the whistle on malfeasance but fear the consequences of reporting such information have good reason to be cautious.

Thu, May 08, 2008

CIO — Women in technology who wish to blow the whistle on malfeasance they witness but who fear the consequences of reporting such information have good reason to be cautious. New research shows that female whistleblowers experience more retaliation than male whistleblowers.

The study, Antecedents and Outcomes of Retaliation Against Whistleblowers: Gender Differences and Power Relationships, sought to identify factors that determine whether a whistleblower would face reprisal. In particular, the study examined whether the whistleblower's gender and level of power in the organization increased or decreased the likelihood that they'd face retaliation.

Research Methodology

A group of academic researchers from Georgetown University, Indiana University and Louisiana State University conducted the study on a U.S. Air Force base in the Midwest. The researchers mailed a confidential, 25-page survey to all 9,900 employees on the base.

Marcia Miceli, a professor in Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business who co-authored the study, said the Air Force base was in some ways an ideal environment for the research because it was such a large employer.

"There are very few large studies of whistle blowing in the U.S. or in the world, and you need to have a large sample of employees to get enough possible whistleblowers to answer questions about retaliation," she says.

The survey contained more than 200 questions. Respondents were asked about their positions on the base; whether, over the past year, they had observed on the base any wrongdoing that they considered serious; the type of wrongdoing (they could choose from a list of 17 forms of wrongdoing that included stealing, accepting bribes, waste, mismanagement, sexual harassment and illegal discrimination); whether they reported the malfeasance; if they hadn't reported the wrongdoing, why they hadn't; and if they were threatened with or had experienced any of a variety of consequences after reporting the incident, such as a demotion, a poor performance review, verbal harassment, intimidation or tighter scrutiny of their daily activities.

Of the 3,288 base employees who responded to the survey, the majority—63 percent—indicated that they hadn't witnessed any malfeasance. The remainder, 37 percent, reported that they had observed wrongdoing.

Of that 37 percent, 26 percent reported the wrongdoing. The rest did not. 125 male whistleblowers and 78 female whistleblowers answered all of the survey questions concerning retaliation, its predictors and its consequences. Miceli says whistleblowers who skipped any of those questions had to be excluded from the statistical analyses due to missing data.

Of the 26 percent of whistleblowers, 37 percent reported experiencing some form of retaliation.

Research Findings

The study, which was published in the March/April 2008 issue of the journal Organization Science, found that more women reported experiencing consequences perceived as retaliation (such as poor performance reviews, verbal harassment, intimidation or tighter scrutiny of their daily activities) after disclosing wrongdoing than did men.

The study also found that a woman's level of power and authority on the base didn't protect her from retaliation.

"In organizations, the theory is, the more power you have, the more likely you'll escape retaliation because the organization thinks you're more credible or because they don't want to alienate you," says Miceli, who has studied whistleblowers for more than 20 years and whose research culminated in the book Blowing the Whistle, with her research partner from Indiana University, Janet Near.

Miceli says the theory on power proved "somewhat true" for male whistleblowers in the study, but not for female whistleblowers.

"In the male sample, there was a small but significant correlation in that the more powerful they were, the less retaliation they said they experienced. For the female sample, there was no relationship," says Miceli.

Notably, the factor that turned out to be the biggest indicator of whether a whistleblower would face retaliation was the amount of support the whistleblower perceives she or he has in the organization. "If there are a lot of people in the company who support what you are saying [about the malfeasance] and who support you, that gives you more protection against retaliation," says Miceli.

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