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The price of blowing the whistle

Often, women who bring issues in the workplace out in the open, face harassment and discrimination. ELAYNE CLIFT on the problem faced by an increasing number of working women.


Women in a male dominated workplace can be marginalised if they reveal problems at work.

FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) agent Coleen Rowley is one of the lucky ones. She told the truth about her workplace and survived — with a little help from Senator Chuck Grassley, who pressed FBI Director Robert Mueller to assure that Rowley would not be punished for having criticised her employer. Rowley is the Minneapolis agent who sent a scathing letter to Mueller about the shortcomings of the FBI. It was her May 21 letter, leaked to the press, accusing FBI headquarters of blocking an aggressive investigation of terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui that launched congressional hearings into alleged intelligence failures that may have contributed to the successful terrorist attacks last September. Rowley called the FBI a bureaucracy rife with "risk aversion", "roadblocks" to investigations and "endless, needless paperwork".

Most women whistleblowers are not so lucky. Dr. Suzanne Hadley is a case in point. Ten years ago when the scientific community was debating the question of who really deserved credit for isolating the HIV virus, Hadley was a scientist working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Scientific Integrity in Bethesda, MD. When, at the instigation of her boss, Hadley declined to rewrite a report about Dr. Robert Gallo, a noted researcher at NIH, that would have slanted the argument in his favour, she began to experience serious harassment. Her telephone records were investigated, she was barred from meetings, and later demoted amidst accusations of "lack of objectivity". Several months later, after a hideous set of circumstances in which she was repeatedly persecuted at work, she resigned.

Karen Pitts and Jackie Brever provide another example. They are two women who simply told the truth when the FBI was investigating their employer, the Rocky Flats plutonium plant in Colorado at about the same time. Because they answered questions about safety issues at the plant such as contamination hazards and non-compliance with federal regulations regarding waste, they were both subjected to vandalism, sexual harassment, and even death threats. They too ultimately resigned, and neither could find work gain in their small community, which saw them as "high risk". These are only some illustrative examples from myriad stories and they go back several years. But things haven't changed much. Women, and many men, who tell the truth about where they work are almost always severely punished. However, women suffer added burdens. Generally marginalised in the workplace to begin with, women who raise questions about cost, policy, ethics, safety, or legalities tend to be harassed more quickly than men because they are already outside of the power structure. They are more likely to be called "crazy" and to be forced into psychotherapy as a condition of keeping their jobs. They are more readily accused of being "bad for morale".

And women whistleblowers are almost always perceived as troublemakers with an attitude. One woman who was fired (and later exonerated) after 28 years of service said, "You try to do the right thing, and then management says you have an attitude problem."

Lynne Bernabei, a Washington DC attorney who specialises in defending whistleblowers, says: "In 99 per cent of cases you're going to be destroyed. That's the reality of the American workplace." She points out that while whistleblowers serve society as "agents of accountability", it is very difficult to protect them. She and other advocates for whistleblowers advise, among other things, to "know what you are getting into" before letting a sense of morality overrule caution. Women often don't have the financial resources or support systems that men do. Advocates advise women to assess the situation they face realistically. Many women have lost their families, their friends, and their sense of community and personal safety in addition to their jobs once they have embarked on a truth-telling mission. "At the very least," says one advocate, "you will be viewed as disgruntled, and as someone who can't hold down a job." Some women have experienced such severe harassment that they end up with serious psychiatric problems, most prevalent among them depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Often the legal system can be as punishing as the workplace.

Which is why support groups like Integrity International, a whistleblowers help line founded in 1985, are so essential. Still, most women who have "been there" don't hesitate a moment before saying they'd take the same steps again. "Coleen Rowley did the right thing, and it has served all Americans well. "I really care about the FBI," she told reporters. "I've invested half my life in it." In applauding her risk-taking behaviour, Senator Grassley called Rowley a "patriotic American".

There are many other patriotic Americans in the workplace whose stories don't have such happy endings. They are the numerous women (and men) who have been driven out of their chosen careers, workers who did not have anyone on Capital Hill watching out for their interests when things got tough. Perhaps Coleen Rowley's courage will inspire them. When it does, let's hope the places where they work will look upon their act as bravery, and not dementia.

Women's Feature Service

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