by Meridith Levinson

Whistleblowers: Women Experience More Retaliation Than Men, Study Reports

May 08, 20086 mins
CareersIT Leadership

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.

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.

The survey did not detect a relationship between the type or severity of retaliation and type or severity of wrongdoing. Miceli says the sample size wasn’t big enough. “We’d probably need 100,000 people in the sample.”

In spite of the odds stacked against female whistleblowers, they’re more likely than men to report the original wrongdoing to an outside organization after they’ve experienced retaliation. In other words, the retaliation isn’t successful in silencing them. “The more retaliation they faced, the more likely women were to keep fighting the battle over what they felt was wrong,” says Miceli.

By contrast, the amount of retaliation men faced didn’t affect whether they took external measures to report the malfeasance.

Miceli thinks women may be more likely to bring wrongdoing to the attention of external parties because more channels exist for them, such as the EEOC. She adds that men may be less likely to escalate incidents because they’re more cognizant of the threat to other men and of the loyalty issues among them.

Ramifications for the Private Sector

Critics of this research may question the applicability of findings from a military base to the experiences of corporate workers. Miceli concedes that there’s no way for her to know for sure how “generalizable” any specific finding from the at the Air Force base would be to any private sector organization. However, she notes that a lot of the findings from research on whistle blowing conducted in other settings offered similar findings. Therefore, managers in all organizations need to be careful not to retaliate against whistleblowers, she says.

“For an organization that has high integrity and wants to succeed, ignoring or retaliating against whistleblowers, whether male or female, makes no sense,” says Miceli. She recommends that companies encourage employees to give them valid information about perceived problems so that they can correct them before the problems get too big.

When asked if she had any sense of whether retaliation against female whistleblowers was more common in male dominated environments like the Air Force base (63 percent of employees on the base are men) and IT departments, Miceli answered that it was a great empirical question and one that needed to be answered.

It’s really hard to do this kind of research in the private sector because the topic is so sensitive,” says Miceli.

If you are interested in conducting this kind of research in your organization, contact Miceli.