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Women whistleblowers – paying a greater price

Women whistleblowers – paying a greater price

28 April 21
 | 16 MINS

Many whistleblowers endure a fight to be believed but existing inequalities exacerbate the risks faced by those who speak out and hold the powerful to account, with women often left the most isolated.

From Dr Li Wenliang who first raised the alarm about a new virus in Wuhan last January, to US medic Rick Bright’s protests against the use of hydroxychloroquine, and countless hospital workers raising concerns about staff and patient safety, whistleblowers have been a feature of this pandemic.

In Ireland last April, a nursing home employee formally disclosed the conditions in which 24 residents died of Covid-19 – one of the many workers speaking out.

Covid-19 has been devastating for many. But without whistleblowers it would be worse. Unfortunately, however, not all whistleblowers are treated the same way.

The experience of an employee speaking out is largely dependent on the power and status they hold in their organization and in society more broadly. Women, minorities, and precarious workers can face specific and daunting obstacles when voicing concerns. This affects us all.

Not all whistleblowers will encounter retaliation. But when women speak up, they can be more likely  than men to suffer reprisals from colleagues and managers. This relates to the fact that, more broadly, women experience greater workplace harassment and bullying.

Whistleblower reprisals get worse where serious wrongdoing is being reported, and where the wrongdoer has greater power than the discloser.

Of course, whistleblowers can challenge retaliation like this, in forums like Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission or the UK’s Employment Tribunal. For both men and women, chances of success are slim; more than four out of five whistleblowers lose their case.

But as new research shows, women can face specific obstacles. Their claims are more often “mixed”, that is, they include a discrimination claim as well as the whistleblowing one.

Mixed cases have a much lower chance of success. Women tend to represent themselves instead of engaging a lawyer, perhaps for financial reasons. Adding to this, a full 25% of women whose whistleblowing claim succeeds, are denied the all-important judgement of automatic unfair dismissal. This figure is much lower, just 7%, for men.

According to researcher Dr Laura William, women whistleblowers going through the legal process experience greater challenges and greater levels of stress than male counterparts.

Dr William was among the international experts speaking to over 200 attendees at NUI Galway’s Whitaker webinar on gender and whistleblowing in March 2021. Other speakers presented research on the specific challenges experienced by women whistleblowers whose cases are publicised online, in traditional media, and in Hollywood films.

Such challenges go beyond women whistleblowers. Systemic racism can influence who speaks out and the response they receive.

In November I recorded a public interview with Chris Smalls for Transparency International Ireland’s annual conference. Mr Smalls had been a manager in an Amazon warehouse in Brooklyn with responsibility for over seventy colleagues. He was forced to go public over Amazon’s failure to protect workers in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, after his concerns were dismissed internally.

Through leaked memos, the Washington Post revealed the manner in which senior executives discussed their planned defence against his accusations.

The advice from a top legal executive was to turn the focus back onto Mr Smalls. This would be acheived by challenging his credibility in public. The email read: “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position…”

Worldwide condemnation of the racist undertones of this planned retaliation ensued.

Research into race and whistleblowing is limited, but high-profile cases like this suggest it is badly needed. Studies of how relative power status and systemic bias can affect women whistleblowers offer a useful starting point;  although each context is different, we know already that minoritized groups in organizations disproportionately encounter harassment even beyond whistleblowing.

Precarious, short-term and insecure working conditions provide yet stronger deterrents to speaking out.

Again, Covid-19 highlights the danger this poses. Staff in Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) and related services who are on short-term contracts are in a particularly weak position when it comes to blowing the whistle.

Agency workers, student nurses and junior doctors tend to avoid acting in ways that might jeopardise their reputation, for fear of exclusion from future work opportunities.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has seen the numbers of such staff on the frontline increase. People in precarious employment are among the most vulnerable staff in care homes. Fear of losing one’s job and damaging future career prospects are among the top reasons Irish employees give for staying silent in the face of wrongdoing, even outside healthcare and among the securely-employed.

When job security is anyway hanging in the balance, can we really blame a precarious worker for thinking twice before speaking out?

The point, of course, is not that there is some inherent reluctance on the part of these groups to disclose wrongdoing. The point is that when they consider speaking out, they are doing so against a backdrop in which bias, insecurity and power imbalances are already present, often deeply-embedded.

The challenge of disclosing thus intensifies and multiplies. Put simply, the well-known hazards of becoming a whistleblower are exacerbated by unequal working conditions.

But surely the laws are changing, and whistleblower support is high on the political agenda?

For sure, by the end of 2021 all EU member states must provide strong protections for workers thanks to an incoming Directive. The new rules outlaw retaliation against whistleblowers and expand the definition of reportable wrongdoing. The Directive insists that organizations enable disclosures, investigate them and report accordingly. Many other countries are following suit including the UK and US.

Equality matters. Where it is missing, even sophisticated whistleblower protection laws will not make much difference.

It seems as though whistleblowing is having a moment. This is a very good thing. But these changes assume that all employees are more or less similar in their capacity to speak out, and the challenges they face. This is simply not true.

Equality matters. Where it is missing, even sophisticated whistleblower protection laws will not make much difference.

This is perhaps clearest right now among meat factory workers across Europe and elsewhere, many of whom do not have citizenship status. In such conditions, silence about workplace exposure to Covid-19 is only to be expected.

The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland’s November survey of meat workers described poor health and safety practices, including in relation to Covid-19 measures, which show a “cavalier disregard for the people who work there”.

Today, meat factories continue to be hotspots for clusters of the virus. Still, few employees feel safe to speak out: it took an NGO report to voice their concerns.

Philosopher Judith Butler describes what is needed to enable the kinds of dissent that support a healthy society that takes accountability seriously. What Butler terms “infrastructures of resistance” are critical; before people can even begin to question and oppose abuses of power, basic conditions of “livability” must be in place.

If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it’s that we need a baseline of employee protection, decent working conditions and equality, in order for workers to articulate serious wrongdoing as they see it.

In the context of organisations, we simply cannot expect people with no security, no support and second-class status to speak up and risk their livelihoods to an even greater degree than normally seen in whistleblowing cases.

If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it that we need a baseline of employee protection, decent working conditions and equality, in order for workers to articulate serious wrongdoing as they see it. Supports must be offered to those that do speak out, tailored to their specific situation.

Emerging figures on whistleblowing in the context of Covid-19 are chilling: nearly half of employees with coronavirus safety concerns were ignored by their bosses between March and September 2020, according to UK whistleblowing charity Protect.

One in five whistleblowers were dismissed for raising concerns. As Chief Executive Liz Gardiner responded, “during a global pandemic, it is a danger for us all when concerns are not acted on. The consequences could be a matter of life and death.”

To address this danger, we must pay attention to who gets to speak up and who does not.

The experience of disclosing wrongdoing depends on who it is that is doing the disclosing. It is shaped by the biases, obstacles and insecurities faced in one’s work and in society more broadly.

The protections we design now, whether legal or organizational, must account for this fact. We need to support all kinds of workers who witness wrongdoing that, inevitably, poses grave danger for the rest of us. Otherwise, we simply remain at the mercy of organisational wrongdoing and related cover-ups, as and when these next occur.

Kate Kenny is author of Whistleblowing – Toward a New Theory (Harvard University Press, 2019) and The Whistleblowing Guide, with W. Vandekerckhove and M. Fotaki (Wiley, 2019).  Sincere thanks to the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Project Fund, NUI Galway and Whitaker Institute for supporting the ‘Gender and Whistleblowing’ webinar on March 5th, to webinar host Dr Meghan Van Portfliet. More details on the topics discussed can be found at , or twitter @katemkenny


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