Research reveals why so many big tech whistleblowers are women
A number of high-profile whistleblowers in the tech industry have been thrust into the spotlight over the past few years. For the most part, they revealed corporate practices that go against the public interest: Frances Haugen denounced use of personal data at MetaTimnit Gebru and Rebecca Rivers challenged Google on ethics and AI issuesand Janneke Parrish raised concerns about a discriminatory work culture at Appleamong others.
Many of these whistleblowers are women – far more, it seems, than the proportion of women working in the tech industry. This raises the question of whether women are more likely to be tech whistleblowers. The short answer is: “It’s complicated.
For many, whistleblowing is a last resort to bring society to solve problems that cannot be solved within an organization, or at least by the whistleblower. It talks about the organizational status, power and resources of the whistleblower; the openness, communication and values of the organization in which they work; and their passion, frustration and commitment to the issue they want to see addressed. Are whistleblowers more focused on the public interest? More virtuous? Less influential in their organizations? Are these possible explanations why so many women speak out against big tech?
To explore these questions, we, a computer scientist and one sociologist, explored the nature of big tech whistleblowing, the influence of gender, and the implications for the role of technology in society. What we found was both complex and intriguing.
tale of virtue
Denunciation is a difficult phenomenon to study because its public manifestation is only the tip of the iceberg. Most reports are confidential or anonymous. At first sight, the notion of whistleblowers corresponds to the dominant narrative that women are somehow more altruistic, public interest-focused, or morally virtuous than men.
Consider an argument made by the New York State Woman Suffrage Association around give american women the right to vote in the 1920s: “Women are, by nature and by training, housewives. Let them participate in the housekeeping of the town, even if they introduce occasional cleaning. In other words, giving women the power to vote would help “clean up” the mess men had made.
More recently, a similar argument has been used in the move to all-female traffic police in some Latin American cities, under the assumption that female police officers are more insensitive to bribes. Indeed, the United Nations recently identified Global Women’s Empowerment as Key to Reduce Corruption and Inequality in its global development goals.
There is data showing that women, more so than men, are associated with lower levels of corruption in government and business. For example, studies show that the increase the proportion of women elected in governments around the world, the lower the corruption. Although this trend partly reflects the tendency of less corrupt governments to elect women more often, additional studies show a direct causal effect of electing female leaders and, in turn, reduce corruption.
Experimental studies and attitudinal surveys also show that women are more ethical in business relationships than their male counterpartsand a study using actual firm-level transaction data confirms that women-led businesses are directly associated with a lower incidence of corruption. Much of this probably comes down to the socialization of men and women into different gender roles in society.
Clues, but no hard data
Although women may be acculturated to behave more ethically, this leaves open the question of whether they are truly more likely to be whistleblowers. Comprehensive data on who reports wrongdoing is elusive, but researchers are trying to answer the question by asking people about their whistleblowing orientation in surveys and vignettes. In these studies, the effect of gender is inconclusive.
However, women seem more willing than men to report wrongdoing when they can do so confidentially. This may be related to the fact that female whistleblowers could face higher rates retaliation than male whistleblowers.
In the realm of technology, there is an additional factor at play. Women are underrepresented both in numbers and in organizational power. The “Big Five” of technology – Google, Meta, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft – are still mostly white and male.
Women currently represent about 25% of their technology workforce and about 30% of their executive leadership. Women are mainstream enough now to avoid being tokens, but they often lack the insider status and resources to effect change. They also lack the power that sometimes corrupts, called the corruption opportunity gap.
In the public interest
People who are often marginalized lack of sense of belonging and inclusion in organizations. The silver lining of this exclusion is that these people may feel less pressured to toe the line when they see wrongdoing. Given all of this, it’s likely that some combination of gender socialization and female alien status in big tech is creating a situation where women seem to be the most common whistleblowers.
It may be that whistleblowing in tech is the result of a perfect storm between gender and public interest issues in the field. Clear and conclusive data does not exist, and without concrete evidence, the jury is out. But the prevalence of female whistleblowers in big tech is emblematic of both of these shortcomings, and the efforts of these whistleblowers are often aimed at boosting diversity and reducing the harm big tech does to society.
More than any other business sector, technology permeates people’s lives. Big tech creates the tools people use every day, defines the information the public consumes, collects data about the thoughts and behavior of its users, and plays a major role in determining whether privacy, safety, security and well-being are supported or compromised.
And yet, the complexity, proprietary intellectual property protections, and ubiquity of digital technologies make it difficult for the public to assess the personal risks and societal impact of technology. Today’s corporate cultural firewalls make it difficult to understand the choices that go into developing the products and services that so dominate people’s lives.
Of all the areas of society that need transparency and a greater focus on the public interest, we believe the most urgent priority is big tech. This makes the courage and commitment of today’s whistleblowers all the more important.
This article from Francine BermanDirector of Public Interest Technology and Research Professor Stuart Rice, Amherst University and Jennifer Lundquistprofessor of sociology, Amherst Universityis republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.