Employees who voice ethical concerns in the workplace often run the risk of retaliation, and that risk is much higher for women. Wharton Deputy Dean Nancy Rothbard explains why and what organizations can do to lower the burden for moral objectors.


Dan Loney: How did the topic of female moral objectors ended up on your radar?

Nancy Rothbard: I’ve done a lot of work over the years on both gender and voicing issues in organizations. In fact, my first academic publication was called “Out On A Limb,” and it was about women who were raising gender equity issues in their organizations and what made them more willing to do so. We found that the role that they were in actually conferred legitimacy for raising these issues. Being in HR made more women more willing to raise gender equity issues because they felt like that was part of their role.

Flash forward to 2020, my student and co-author, Tim Kundro, was interested in morality in organizations. When he came to talk to me about this project, it was really a fabulous intersection of our interests: my interests on gender and voice, and his on moral objection.

Loney: You found that women in power are more likely to face retaliation when they voice ethical concerns more so than men in power. Can you break down that finding and what you believe accounts for the difference?

Rothbard: Sure. As you said, we found that high-powered women, when they raised ethical concerns, experienced more retaliation than their male counterparts. And the reason we found for this is that they were perceived as being out of control. What was really interesting about this for us is that a lot of the past research on gender assumes that one of the reasons women get backlash is because they’re perceived as not warm and friendly. But we found it wasn’t warmth perceptions that was the problem, it was self-control.

The reason for that is, frankly, people don’t like moral objectors. Whether they’re male or female, people think that moral objectors are seen as rocking the boat, as violating expectations, as disrupting things. One of the things that’s really interesting is that people think that moral objectors are often selfish. They’re selfishly demonstrating their own moral superiority or putting their own ideological preferences on to other people or the organization.

A lot of the literature talks about how moral objectors are viewed as self-righteous or arrogant. The perception is exacerbated by the idea that it’s somehow seen as socially inappropriate that you are raising these objections. You are disrupting things, you’re making waves. When moral objectors violate expectations by raising these concerns, people often think that they’re doing this to advance their own moral agenda and that there’s something selfish about that that costs the group something.

Loney: Let’s talk about this idea of perceived self-control. What does it really mean in this context?

Rothbard: It’s either the ability, or the lack of self-control is the inability, to restrain those selfish or antisocial impulses for the sake of what’s perceived as best for the group. The kinds of things that we would ask are, does Dan lack self-discipline, is Dan bad at resisting temptation, does Dan act without thinking through alternatives? We did some supplementary analyses where we found that lower self-control is associated with perceptions of higher selfishness and lower other-orientedness. So, you’re not as concerned about others if you’re seen as having low self-control.

Loney: There seems to be a variety of gender stereotypes at play here. Based on the work that you’ve done, what are some of the strongest ones that tend to influence how women are perceived in the workplace?

Rothbard: That’s a really important question. I think that some of the gender stereotypes that are really important when we think about women in the workplace are stereotypes around other-orientedness, around communality. Are we doing things on behalf of the group, are we pro-social, are we in it for everyone? And that plays out here as well in that it’s related to perceptions of self-control.

But what you often see in many other types of work on gender in the workplace are the perceptions of the warmth, that women need to be warm and friendly. You’ve seen or heard about how women need to smile more. That’s sort of an expectation of women, that they are more connected to others in the workplace. That’s very hard oftentimes because it’s an additional layer of responsibility that women have to really engage with other people while they’re having to be highly competent at their jobs at the same time. What we add in this paper is this additional expectation around self-control that plays out in important ways.

Loney: How does retaliation show up in this context, and does it tend to be subtle?

Rothbard: Retaliation was the dependent variable we looked at. We were looking at the consequences of raising moral concerns and how people react, and retaliation was what we looked at. Retaliation can take a lot of different forms. It can be work related. You could be demoted, if it’s an extreme case. But it can also take less extreme forms, like people spreading gossip or rumors about the person. It also is important because retaliation occurs when people want to either silence, discredit, or discourage people from behaving the way that they’re behaving in the future. It’s trying to maintain order and compliance in the face of a behavior that is seen as problematic.

When we looked at retaliation in this paper, we looked at it in a couple of different ways. We had a couple of archival studies that were done in the field, and they asked people if they had experienced retaliation in different forms. It asked them, have you ever experienced retaliation because you raised health or safety concerns? Or you raised issues around fraud or engaged in any kind of whistleblowing? Or you raised issues around equal opportunity? Some of the items were around whether people had raised issues around sexual harassment or disagreeing with management decisions. It was even as broad as that.

In some of the other studies, we asked people whether they ever experienced retaliation. We turned it around in some of our other studies and we asked people, have you ever retaliated against somebody else? We gave them a scenario and asked, did you retaliate against that person, or did you suggest that they were out of line, or did you spread rumors, or did you discourage this behavior, or did you indicate that behavior was inappropriate? Those were the types of ways that we operationalized retaliation in some of the other studies.

Loney: Can you walk us through the Kevin and Kate experiment?

Rothbard: Our fourth study in the paper that we published was the Kevin and Kate experiment, where we gave participants a task to brainstorm different ideas independently. We said they could use the internet to source ideas, then they were supposed to interact with a set of teammates to develop the ideas. When they went to interact with the teammates, we had an artificial teammate, Kevin or Kate. Kevin or Kate then was either a high-power person or an average-power person.

Then we had Kevin or Kate say either, “I must point out a moral problem with this task, and I can’t complete it. Asking users to use the internet to look up ideas could lead to plagiarism, and this is a serious moral issue and must be stopped.” In one version, Kevin or Kate said that.

In the other version, Kevin or Kate said, “Because it might come back to hurt the platform and any participants in the study, I have to point out there’s a moral problem with the task and I can’t complete it. Asking users to use the internet to look up ideas could lead to plagiarism, which could put people on the platform at risk. This is a serious problem, and it might negatively impact the platform and the workers or get us in trouble, and it has to be stopped in order to protect the platform and its workers from unfair retribution.”

As you see, we had a moral objection in both cases, but in the one case it was what we call the standard frame, and in the other case it was what we call the organizational frame, where we’re giving much more explanation and rationale about how it could hurt the organization and the people in the organization if we proceed.

We then had the participants respond to Kevin or Kate, and we coded their responses for whether they were retaliatory or not. Retaliatory messages where ones where they ended up scolding or disparaging or criticizing Kevin or Kate for their behavior. One of our favorite quotes from the responses was, “You are a petulant little child. You need to grow up and get a grip.” That was an example of a negative retaliatory response. We also coded positive responses. Some of the responses that Kevin or Kate received were ones that thanked them or condoned their behavior. An example was, “This is a really important point. Thanks for bringing it up.” So, we had a variety of ways people responded based on who the person was, what their level of power was, and whether they used an organizational frame or not. That interaction between those factors really led to quite a disparity in how people responded.

Loney: Are there ways to reduce the potential for retaliation in some of these circumstances?

Rothbard: One of the things that we found that was really important was when Kevin or Kate used the organizational frame, where they gave more of an explanation about the benefits to the organization and the group, retaliation was lowered across the board for men and for women. The only people who did not experience higher levels of retaliation when they used a standard frame were the high-powered men. The high-powered men were able to just sort of say, this is wrong and we shouldn’t do it. Low-powered men and women, and even high-powered women, needed to use the organizational frame in order to experience lower levels of retaliation and be more accepted in terms of what they were saying.

Loney: What particular recommendations do you have for organizations around that type of a remedy?

Rothbard: I think’s really important that when we find things like this, we don’t put all of the burden on low-powered individuals, or in this case certain groups of individuals like women. Our recommendations are more broad. What we would say is we encourage all moral objectors, regardless of their gender or structural power, to use an organizational frame when using moral objections. It’s going to make everybody sound more in control, and it is going to really help ensure that gendered outcomes are reduced. And it really increases people’s receptivity to your moral objection, across all ends of the continuum.

The second thing I would suggest is that we train people how to do this. We need to provide examples for employees on how to frame these types of moral objections. A third is to help employees really recognize their own bias and learn to reframe moral objections that they encounter. I think we need to raise awareness that we are all doing this. Women were retaliating as much as men were against high-powered women when they were not framing things with an organizational frame.

I think the last thing is highlighting the benefits that moral objections can provide to organizations because, as I started with, people don’t like moral objectors. They feel like they’re rocking the boat, they’re a sticky wheel. How do we make people understand that raising moral objections is not just about pursuing a selfish agenda? It’s often about pursuing a selfless agenda and one that does benefit the organization as a whole.

Loney: Do you think it’s better to focus on changing the system or changing the individual behavior?

Rothbard: That’s a really tough one, because I think that we have more leverage over individual behaviors often as individual actors. As a woman who is in a power position, it’s important to know that this is a tool that you can use to level the playing field. But again, I think that to make systemic change, we really need to do more, and we need to raise that awareness at a broader level. So, I think that it’s both, quite frankly.

Loney: What are some of the other big questions that we need to look at around the topic of women in leadership?

Rothbard: I think there’s a really interesting opportunity here because we’re at a place in our scholarship where we know a lot about the problems. We’ve documented the problems: lack of representation, the leaky pipeline, the glass ceiling, the glass cliff, subtle forms of bias, benevolent sexism, lack of mentorship and sponsorship. But we need more work on solutions to those problems. One of the things that I’m most proud about in this work is that we identify a practical, actionable solution that we can start to make a difference in people’s lives and their effectiveness in organizations. More work that examines women’s careers, more work that examines how we can get both men and women to be allies in addressing these issues — I think those are the opportunities that we have to really make a difference in terms of women’s leadership.