Former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, whose testimony on the former president during the Jan. 6 hearings “felt like bombshell after bombshell,” is hunkered down in a secret location with her family and a security detail.
While many on the political left and a handful of fellow Republicans — including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas — praised her as brave, much of the right have spent their time questioning her credibility and motivations as a lower-level staffer.
The conflicting narratives swirling around Hutchinson are typical of the kind of blowback whistleblowers face. Often held up in history as heroes, the harsh reality of what they go through is a lot more complicated. Rarely do whistleblowers court tons of job offers after coming forward, and some, like Hutchinson, find themselves facing physical threats of violence.
Concern for physical safety might not be the norm for the average whistleblower, but worry that there will be some sort of career retaliation is very much warranted, especially for women, said Janet Near, a professor of management and the Howard L. Hawks Chair of Business Ethics and Leadership at the University of Nebraska.
Near has studied retaliation against whistleblowers for more than 40 years — known in academic circles for the landmark gender and whistleblowing study she did using civilians and military personnel on an Air Force base. More than 3,000 people filled out the 25-page anonymous survey that asked respondents questions such as whether they felt co-workers and supervisors retaliated against them when they reported any of the 17 types of wrongdoing that the survey included (stealing, bribery, sexual harassment, employee abuse of office, etc.).
While the study is not new, there hasn’t been one like it, said Near, and she emphasized that not much has changed, except that there are more women working in the public and private sectors.
The fallout female whistleblowers often face, she said, because they are women, seems to be about the same.
The bottom line: Women have it worse when it comes to speaking out.
At all job levels, female whistleblowers can expect retaliation.
In an article Near wrote with several colleagues referencing her past study, Near stated that a person’s level of authority influenced whether they suffered retaliation following whistleblowing — but only for men, that is. If a lower-level male worker speaks to his supervisor or outside party about what he perceives as a wrongdoing, Near wrote, there is a higher chance he will face retaliation. Men in higher-up positions, however, seemed to be generally immune to any sort of organizational retaliation. Not true for women, whose job titles didn’t seem to protect them no matter how high up in the chain they were.
“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,” Near wrote in her article outlining her study.
In the most serious and costly cases to an organization, female whistleblowers face greater retaliation.
For the cases that were long-term, were potentially expensive and involved people at the top of an organization, it makes sense that there would be greater retaliation. And Near found that to be true … for women. Men didn’t face higher levels of retaliation in those situations — if they faced it at all.
“For women, blowing the whistle about serious wrongdoing committed by higher-level wrongdoers … was more strongly related to retaliation than was the case for men,” she wrote.
Also, the more a woman is directly affected by a wrongdoing, the more likely she’ll suffer retaliation.
“If the whistleblower is saying, this is something that happened to me or this happened to employees at my level or this happened to my sub-unit, women were more likely to suffer retaliation; men were not,” she said.
So … what is it about being female that puts a whistleblower at great risk for reprisal?
It may be about women stepping out of the (demur) lane that society says they should stay in, Near wrote. Whistleblowing is an “openly assertive” action, which is seen as “more legitimate and less threatening” for men. That might have a “double whammy effect” for women because they are acting assertively and about something important.
“Our results suggest that gender of whistleblowers is related to their chances of retaliation perhaps because whistle-blowing itself represents a violation of stereotypical role expectations for women,” Near wrote.
What’s most important, Near said, is that people remember that whistleblowers are, well, people and they can’t be lumped into one giant category as heroes or villains, emphasizing that each whistleblowing situation is unique and our perspective on it really depends on our own positions in society or in an organization.
Are women more likely to be whistleblowers?
The short answer is that there is no short answer. That said, there has been some recent analysis/research that offers some clues.
The perception that women in the tech industry are more often whistleblowers was explored in a recent article. And while the authors concluded that “it’s complicated,” they did find that it’s “likely that some combination of gender socialization and female outsider status in big tech creates a situation where women appear to be the prevalent whistleblowers.”
A separate study, which looked at whether gender played a role in who reported financial fraud, found that women were, in fact, more likely to call out wrongdoing — but only if they could do so confidentially.
As for Near’s research over the years, she said it’s actually men that are more likely to be whistleblowers, but added three caveats:
• Men may hold higher-level positions where they are more likely to observe wrongdoing and therefore are more likely to report it than women;
• Men may be more likely to be employed in professions where norms encourage reporting of wrongdoing (e.g., engineering or accounting) so they experience less pressure not to blow the whistle;
• All of this may be changing because now there are more women in higher-level positions or in professions where there are not strong norms against whistleblowing.
Near also said she has found specific circumstances when women are more likely to whistleblow (but noted that doesn’t necessarily mean the quantity of women whistleblowers is greater).
She said that about 90 percent of all whistleblowers start internally (report the wrongdoing within their company). If whistleblowers subsequently suffer retaliation, they may then blow the whistle externally (reporting out to media or watchdogs). Both men and women who perceived the wrongdoing as serious were likely to blow the whistle again, externally. If they were retaliated against, women were likely to blow the whistle again, but this was not true for men.
Pretty much guaranteed: A rocky career path
One effect of whistleblowing — likely for women and men, no matter how much their whistleblowing was celebrated or panned, said Near — is fewer career possibilities, at least in the field they were in. She pointed to the three female whistleblowers named Time’s Person of the Year. They never worked in their fields again.
“What happened to them is kind of what happens to whistleblowers who have gone external. It is unlikely that they will ever have a career again — at least in that particular area.”
She said it’s likely going to be the same for Hutchinson.
“I suspect it’s going to be tough for her,” she said. “There may be organizations who say, ‘We want to hire that kind of person. We believe in organizational dissent because we know it makes the organization stronger.’ But the problem is, when you’re a manager it is difficult day to day.”
As far as whether Hutchinson going into hiding is overkill, Near said not as far as she is concerned.
“I don’t blame her,” she said. “If I were Cassidy, I would do exactly what she was doing. I would go into hiding.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.