Blowing Whistles--and Being Ignored

Women may be more naturally wired to expose corporate wrongdoing, but are their warnings taken as seriously as men's?

In the unfolding Enron drama, I couldn't help but notice the role that women played as whistle-blowers. I'm referring to the now well-known Sherron Watkins and the lesser-known Maureen Castaneda, each of whom either observed wrongdoing or raised red flags about Enron's dealings.

Watkins, Enron's vice-president of corporate development, wrote the prescient memo to Enron's chief executive that warned him the company was in deep financial trouble. Castaneda, Enron's director of foreign exchange, is the one who told authorities that Enron was still shredding documents after its officials were ordered to preserve every piece of paper.

In many cases, women's complaints aren't treated with a sense of urgency. For example, Tammy Raynor, a former driver's license examiner in Cook County, Ill., met deaf ears when she first blew the whistle in the ongoing federal Operation Safe Road investigation of driver's license bribery in the Illinois secretary of state's office under George Ryan, who has since become governor. Since late 1998, 42 people have been convicted of wrongdoing, six of them affiliated with the facility where Raynor worked.

I wondered if gender has anything to do with who raises red flags and if women's warnings are apt to be taken less seriously than men's. Joyce Rothschild, a professor of sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University who recently completed the first national survey of 300 self-described whistle-blowers, found that the greatest determinant of who reports wrongdoing is not gender but "who is in the position to observe troubling events." So the seemingly increasing numbers of women whistle-blowers appear to be just a reflection of women now rising into positions that give them access to the kind of damaging information to which men have always been privy.

But Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and author of The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing the World, would appear to disagree. She argues that evolution has wired women to be natural whistle-blowers because of the way they think and how they learned to play as children.

Women, says Fisher, think in "webs of factors where they collect more data and see more options and outcomes than men." This gives them an antenna of sorts to anticipate problems. Men, she says, are linear thinkers and tend to focus on facts that are most immediately important and discard data that isn't directly related to the task at hand.

As for the method of play, men cast themselves in hierarchies and are more sensitive to rank and rules. "As young boys, they jockey for position on the playground and learn early on to give and take orders," says Fisher. If boys don't like the rules, they leave the game. Later, they join the old boys network and create allegiances they won't break. Girls play in leaderless groups, not hierarchies, and choose games with far fewer rules, which change if someone gets upset. "Women aren't as likely to play by the rules if they don't think the rules are right," says Fisher. Consequently, women, who might be more sensitive to corporate shenanigans because they are less attuned to hierarchies, may be unable to ignore the situation.

Another element: Women are outside the old boys network. While groups of men often adhere to a code of silence, women aren't as beholden to the network, says Edie Weiner, a New York trend-spotter and management consultant who has sat on two corporate boards. And because women are outside the network, "it tends to be easier for management to discredit or not hear them," says Lynne Bernabei, a Washington lawyer who represents whistle-blowers.

Even if there were no evidence that women have any more disposition to be whistle-blowers than men, at least they enjoy one ethical advantage: By being excluded from the old boys network, they can't be compromised by it, either.

By Toddi Gutner

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