Women as Whistleblowers: Does Gender Affect Retaliation?

The Legal Intelligencer

Editor's note: This article is based in part on the book by Frederick D. Lipman titled "Whistleblowers: Incentives, Disincentives, and Protection Strategies."

In 2002, Time magazine selected three individuals as "Person of the Year," each of whom was a whistleblower. All were women and all were whistleblowers in large organizations, namely, Sherron Watkins (whistleblower in Enron), Cynthia Cooper (vice president of internal audit for WorldCom Inc.) and Coleen Rowley (an FBI whistleblower). Watkins and Cooper are well known, but Rowley is not. After Sept. 11, 2001, Rowley documented how FBI Headquarters personnel in Washington, D.C., had mishandled and failed to take action on information provided by the Minneapolis Field Office regarding its investigation of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

In 2010, Cheryl Eckard, who worked in compliance for SmithKlineBeecham Corp., d/b/a GlaxoSmithKline, received whistleblower awards under the U.S. False Claims Act, which (when combined with state awards) amounted to over $100 million. It was alleged in the complaint filed by her attorney that she had repeatedly expressed to her superiors serious concerns about quality assurance and compliance problems at the company's Cidra plant in Puerto Rico prior to May 2003. In early May 2003, Eckard allegedly received a phone call from the company's human resources department advising her that she was being offered a redundancy package. According to the complaint, Eckard stated that she was not interested in a package and was told that she had no choice. Even after her employment termination, Eckard allegedly continued her efforts to have the company address Cidra's quality and compliance problems and was ignored. The company settled with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010 for $750 million and that was the basis for Eckard's awards.

Does gender play any role in who is a whistleblower?

An interesting empirical study of the gender of whistleblowers was published in 2008 by Michael T. Rehg, Marcia P. Miceli, Janet P. Near and James R. Van Scotter, titled "Antecedents and Outcomes of Retaliation Against Whistleblowers: Gender Differences and Power Relationships."

The empirical study was conducted by two male and two female researchers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Questionnaires were distributed to all employees, to be completed anonymously and be returned to the researchers. A total of 3,288 employees participated. The base commander provided a cover letter assuring employees of anonymity and suggesting that results might influence his future decision-making.

Near the beginning of each questionnaire, respondents were asked whether, within the last 12 months, they had "personally observed or had direct evidence" of any of 17 types of wrongdoing involving their organizations. The whistleblowers who reported wrongdoing (excluding those who reported wrongdoing anonymously) claimed that they experienced the following types of retaliation:

  • Co-workers not socializing with them—11 percent.
  • Tighter scrutiny of daily activities by management—14 percent.
  • Withholding of information needed to successfully perform job—10 percent.
  • Personnel/staff withdrawn—9 percent.
  • Verbal harassment or intimidation—12 percent.
  • Poor performance appraisal—15 percent.
  • Professional reputation was harmed—7 percent.
  • Charged with committing an unrelated offense—7 percent.
  • Denial of award—7 percent.
  • Denial of promotion—7 percent.
  • Denial of opportunity for training—9 percent.
  • Assignment to less desirable or less important duties—8 percent.
  • Reassignment to different job with less desirable duties—7 percent.

The empirical study stated as follows:

"Male whistleblowers were treated differently depending on their power in the organization, but female whistleblowers received the same treatment regardless of the amount of organizational power they held: Their status as women overrode their status as powerful or powerless organization members. This was consistent with earlier findings that female attorneys (a relatively powerful group) suffered greater levels of interpersonal mistreatment than male attorneys. ... On the other hand, women who reported wrongdoing that was serious or which harmed them directly were more likely to suffer retaliation, whereas men were not. Again, we believe that women who blow the whistle are behaving in ways that are inconsistent with their status; when they blow the whistle about serious wrongdoing or about a higher-level wrongdoer, the whistleblowing is even more at odds with the appropriate role for women, thereby causing them to be seen as deserving retaliation."

The empirical study supported the following hypotheses:

  • There is a correlation between gender and retaliation, with women more likely to suffer retaliation than men when they are whistleblowers.
  • Low whistleblower power (reflected in nonsupervisory status, low leverage and no employee prescription for whistleblowing) was significantly related to retaliation for men but was unrelated to retaliation for women.
  • The greater the seriousness of the wrongdoing the greater the retaliation for women whistleblowers.
  • Retaliation against the whistleblower was positively associated with the relationship of the whistleblower to his or her supervisor and the effect of the retaliation was stronger for women.

The study concluded that the gender of the whistleblower was positively related to the chances of retaliation against a woman whistleblower, perhaps because whistleblowing represented a violation of the stereotypical role expectations for women.

The study also concluded that greater individual power within the organization did not help female whistleblowers avoid retaliation. For men, greater individual power and support from others was helpful, but contrary to the model, seriousness of wrongdoing was unrelated to retaliation.

The study has important implications for organizations that wish to use best practices. Retaliation may cause whistleblowers to subsequently use external channels for reporting and female whistleblowers are more likely to suffer retaliation than male whistleblowers.

Also important to the employee's decision to externally report is the whistleblower's view of the organization's procedures for handling whistleblower complaints. A perception of procedural injustice predicts retaliation against the organization. The employee's direct supervisor hears the complaint first and is responsible for administering the whistleblower procedures. Whistleblowers who perceive their supervisors as behaving unjustly are more likely to report externally. Likewise, if the employee whistleblower suffers retaliation or procedural injustice, he or she is more likely to retaliate against the organization, according to "The Roles of Distributive, Procedural and Interactional Justice" by Daniel P. Skarlicki and Robert Folger.

“Women as Whistleblowers: Does Gender Affect Retaliation?,” by Frederick D. Lipman was published in The Legal Intelligencer on June 30, 2015. To view the article online, please click here.

Reprinted with permission from the June 30, 2015, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, or visit