Women whistle-blowers drew much acclaim earlier this decade. Enron, WorldCom, and even the FBI were exposed by fearless females who had seen enough and called out their bosses.
In the wake of those scandals, some even concluded that women might be intrinsically more ethical than men and lionized their righteousness. A 2002 study by James Davis at Notre Dame and Jack Ruhe at St. Mary’s College in Indiana found that female business students value honesty and independence more than their male counterparts.
But new research suggests that despite those successes, women might be feeling backlash from their bravery. A paper just published in the journal Organization Science surveyed 3,288 employees of a mostly civilian military unit in the Midwest and looked at the impact whistle-blowing had on their jobs. In the sample, of which 37 percent were women, 37 percent had reported wrongdoing of some kind in the last year.
“The levels of retaliation as perceived by the women we surveyed were greater than those perceived by men,” says Marcia Miceli of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, a co-author of the study.
According to the authors, employees tattled on a range of misdeeds including stealing, waste, mismanagement, safety, sexual harassment, discrimination, and breaking the law. Although many organizations have systems in place to encourage truth-telling in such situations, retaliation still exists. The most common types of retaliation cited were bad performance reviews, tougher scrutiny of daily activities, verbal harassment or intimidation, shunning by colleagues, and bosses withholding important information.
Perceptions of retaliation are necessarily subjective, the authors acknowledge. But one reason women might be more subject to discrimination is that since men are viewed as more aggressive, whistle-blowing is more expected from them and they suffer fewer repercussions. Women may be seen as insubordinate, while men tend to be applauded as altruistic corporate citizens for their actions.
While men still hold more managerial positions, high-ranking women are not safe from blowback. “Even if the woman had significant power within the organization, she still wasn’t protected,” says Miceli.