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Are Women Indeed the Fairer Sex?

Prominent whistle-blowers give rise to speculation about gender and ethics

June 28, 2002|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Enron Vice President Sherron Watkins. FBI agent Coleen Rowley. Former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds.

All were close to high-level wrongdoing, all willing to tell. In the recent months of high-profile scandals, these whistle-blowers have exposed misdeeds in some of the highest-stakes cases in the country, and because all are women, many have speculated that gender might have had something to do with it.

There's no question that as women have come into positions of power, they have gained unprecedented access to information about the workings of their organizations. Some people believe that when they come face to face with impropriety they react with an inherently stronger moral and ethical sense than men do.

Pointing to research by Harvard's Carol Gilligan showing differences in how men and women look at ethical issues, UC Irvine professor Judith Rosener says women have already brought a different ethic to the workplace. "Women see things in a much bigger context than do men," she said. In her e-book "Ways Women Lead" (Harvard Business School, 2002), she observes that women tend to be more interactive in their leadership. For instance, women consult a lot of people when they make decisions; men consult a small coterie of people.

Women see the implications of their decisions, such as whom will be hurt, in contrast to men, who tend to think about whether they will make money or get caught, Rosener said. "Not that men are more crooked. They don't think about implications in the same way." It's no coincidence that the whistle-blowers exposing some of the most significant examples of government incompetence and corporate greed are women, says Anita Hill, the Brandeis University professor who, in confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, charged him with sexual harassment. In an essay for the New York Times, Hill observed that both Rowley and Watkins rose through the ranks of male-dominated institutions to become insiders. At the same time, they remained outsiders with outsider values, she suggested.

Those "outside values," in contrast to the established corporate culture, cause them to speak up, Hill reasoned, and their status allowed them to be heard. What had been glossed over within became front-page news.The memo Watkins wrote in August to then-Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay detailed improper accounting and management practices that would later confirm the source of the biggest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history.

FBI agent Rowley's May letter to two U.S. senators and the staff of a congressional committee described a "climate of fear" in the FBI and named officials who had brushed aside warnings about suspected terrorists before the Sept. 11 attacks.

And just last week, it was revealed that Edmonds, hired as an a FBI translator in Washington, D.C., after the Sept. 11 attacks, had written letters to federal and congressional officials detailing her suspicions about a linguist colleague. The colleague, she said, belonged to the Middle Eastern organization whose taped conversations she had been hired to translate for counterintelligence agents. In addition, the colleague had had "unreported contacts" with a foreign government official who was also a subject of surveillance. The FBI confirmed those allegations, which, says Steven Kohn, Edmonds' attorney, reveal flaws in the way the FBI is handling its investigation of the attacks.

Those who agree with Hill believe the tension between insider status and outsider values is an ongoing phenomenon that will only increase with the numbers of women in positions of authority. Others say it's only incidental that women have blown the whistle in these cases. "Ethics and integrity are not entirely the province of women," said Charmaine Yost, a board member of the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative public policy organization. "Women do not have unique standing as saints."

Meanwhile, the women whistle-blowers might be making some men nervous. Some fear a backlash against promoting women. "There is this perception that if girls get into the good old boys' network, they will tell tales out of school," said Marguerite Schaffer, president of Executive Women of New Jersey. "It goes back to the schoolyard. If we hang out with the boys, we might tell somebody what they're doing."

'Doing Their Job'

In any given week, roughly 35 would-be whistle-blowers call the National Whistleblower Center in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit advocacy organization aiming to protect the rights of employee whistle-blowers in both the private and public sectors. About half the callers are women, and nearly 70% are government workers, said Executive Director Kris Kolesnik, a former investigator for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and the Defense Department.

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