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The rise of female whistleblowers

Until recently, I firmly believed whistleblowers would increasingly turn to secure, anonymizing tools and websites, like WikiLeaks, to share their data rather than take the risk of relying on a journalist to protect their identity. Now, however, WikiLeaks is implicated in aiding the election of Donald Trump, and “The Silence Breakers,” outspoken victims of sexual assault, are Time’s 2017 Person of the Year.

Not only is this moment remarkable because of the willingness of whistleblowers to come forward and show their faces, but also because women are the ones blowing the whistle. With the notable exception of Chelsea Manning who herself did not choose to be identified, the most well-known whistleblowers in modern history, arguably Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and Jeffrey Wigand, are all men.

Research suggests key individual and organizational attributes that lend themselves to whistleblowing. On the individual level, people motivated by strong moral values or self-identity might be more likely to act. At the organizational level, individuals are more likely to report wrongdoing if they believe they will be listened to.

People who have faith in the organizations they work for are more likely to report wrongdoing internally. Those who don’t have faith look to the government, reporters, and/or hire lawyers to expose the wrongdoings.

Historically, women wouldn’t have been likely candidates to report internally because they haven’t been listened to or empowered in the workplace. At work they are undervalued,underrepresented in leadership roles, and underpaid compared to male colleagues. This signals to women that their concerns will not be taken seriously or instigate change. Therefore, many choose to remain silent.

Whistleblowing comes with enormous risks, and those risks are greater for women.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is particularly egregious. He was disgraced and condemned only after a few brave, powerful women were willing to publicly go on the record, which then prompted many other accusers to come forward. Consider also The Washington Post’s exceptional reporting on women who accused Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexually pursuing underage girls. One individual, even named, might be easy to dismiss. But there wasn’t just one. There were four.

Actress Ashley Judd at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., 20 January 2017 by S Pakhrin from DC, USA. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In today’s whistleblowing moment women are creating de facto public support organizations by coming out in groups. This signals to others with similar stories that it is okay to speak out and their stories can be believed.

The desire for these women to tell the truth aligns perfectly with journalists’ commitment to “truth.” It has long been the backbone of good journalism, but in today’s political climate in the US, truth is relative and a matter of opinion and revision. The President of the United States, for example, regularly misstates facts and recently has claimed a video of him denigrating women fake – even though he already apologized for it.

In line with discussing the transgressions of popular, influential individuals, today’s whistleblowers also appeal to journalists who pride themselves on holding people in power accountable. Some women have lawyers to shoulder their cases and choose to remain anonymous. Even still, by pursuing allegations against prominent, powerful individuals, they draw media attention because it is hard to keep investigations quiet when the accused is high-profile and forced to take a leave of absence or is fired.

At this moment in time when it comes to politics, nothing is believed and everything is debated, but women are able to seize the moment and lead conversations about sexual assault. But are women supported and respected enough to become whistleblowers on issues other than sexual assault?

I sincerely hope that women are not being recognized as whistleblowers now because they are seen as ‘experts’ in the area of sexual assault and harassment. It is an unfortunate, common experience for many women, as recently validated by the #MeToo phenomenon.

But where do we go from here? Will we believe women about corporate fraud? About government corruption? Who will we believe and why? More importantly, perhaps, will female whistleblowers believe long term in the media and the public to support them?

According to Transparency International, an independent international whistleblowing advocacy and support organization, trust in the US government is decreasing. 7 in 10 people do not believe the government is fighting corruption.  This suggests it is unlikely that women – or men, for that matter – will trust whistleblowing laws or the government’s handling of whistleblower complaints.

Therefore, those with conviction to become a whistleblower will be more likely to go to the media. A new report by The Poynter Institute suggests public trust in media is increasing, but trust is highly correlated with partisanship. Republicans and supporters of President Trump are more likely to believe the media is dishonest.

In this sense, I’m hopeful that the media’s coverage and careful reporting on sexual assault whistleblowers can transcend politics and help further restore media trust so that more women will feel comfortable confiding in journalists, and believe that their stories can effect change.

Featured image credit: Hashtag #MeToo (digital text pattern on RGB screen version 25), 8 December 2017 by Wolfmann. CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Faith

    This is a great way to get more people involved in the whistleblower act, but for me it is a hurtful reminder how some individuals in power can discredit a woman when she voiced concerns, etc. Without telling my personal story, I do believe even with all the vocal awareness and support that there are still women and men who also use harassment stories and abuse to discredit someone they have an ax to grind with or to gain financially from discrediting someone.

    Solidarity is a great tool in which to stand against aggressive behaviors, but I also hope that common sense will be at hand as well as I have seen where personal vendettas have been waged against innocent individuals.

  2. Fredrick Carter

    Hi Andrea, fantastic article! Yes, people who don’t trust their organizations, report wrongdoings to the government, media and lawyers to expose the culprits. Whistleblowing is most effective when it operates within an open-door culture, where employees are actively encouraged to raise their concerns and can do so without fear of retaliation. In such organizations, problems are likely to be addressed long before they develop into crises. Senior management is responsible for setting this tone, ensuring that an open and ethical culture is built within their organization. A clear understanding of good corporate behavior makes wrongdoing easy to spot.

  3. Blog – Nell Geraets

    […] form of surveillance and control or as a tool to extend stereotypes and gender norms. We need more whistleblowers acting in the interests of women and their digital practices. We need more journalists willing to speak up on our […]

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