This week, the world watched as Frances Haugen called out Facebook, her former employer, for allegedly prioritizing company growth over the safety of its users.
Haugen told Congress on Tuesday that the social network has long known that its algorithms can harm younger users, and that “the choices being made inside Facebook are disastrous — for our children, for our public safety, for our privacy and for our democracy.”
Her testimony came just days after a “60 Minutes” interview in which she took Facebook to task for allegedly allowing misinformation to spread because it yielded upticks in engagement. Before that, Haugen had leaked information that served as the foundation for the Wall Street Journal’s explosive Facebook Files investigative report.
It takes a considerable amount of bravery to take on powerful institutions and corporations, and the Securities and Exchange Commission offers protections to those who speak out against misconduct. And over the past two decades, in many high-profile cases, it’s been women who have taken up that charge.
Here are some other women whistleblowers who spoke up, when needed, to effect change. (For more information about each case, click on the person’s name.)
When Justice Brett Kavanaugh was in consideration for the U.S. Supreme Court seat he now occupies, Blasey Ford stepped forward with allegations of sexual assault against him. Though the incident had taken place decades prior, Blasey Ford laid out the details as precisely as she could, while an entire nation watched. “I am here today not because I want to be,” she said at the time. “I am terrified.” Her decision to push past her fear to speak out did not forestall Kavanaugh’s placement on the highest court in the land — but it did give comfort, and a voice, to scores of other sexual assault survivors.
2. Susan Fowler
Once an engineer at popular rideshare app Uber, Fowler went out on a limb to expose a pervasive culture of toxic masculinity that she says she had to navigate while working there. The harassment, she says, began early on, and persisted throughout her year at the company. In a blog post exposing what she experienced behind the scenes, Fowler detailed both the unwelcome advances and the lack of support from human resources. “I was speaking the truth in a system that doesn’t value the truth. But as soon as you go out of it, then speaking the truth actually has an impact,” she later told The Guardian.
3. Erika Cheung
Theranos was once a giant of the health tech world. The former blood-test maker, defunct as of 2018, and founder Elizabeth Holmes were the talk of the town — until Cheung stepped forward to announce that the tests it was known for routinely failed the quality control tests administered. “[B]ehind closed doors we’re having all these problems, and [patients] think they’re getting correct results,” Cheung told online tech publication Protocol last month. “It was starting to get very, very uncomfortable and very stressful for me working at the company.” Holmes now faces numerous fraud charges — the trial is ongoing.
In 2002, three women were honored for standing up for what they believed in: Sherron Watkins, who discovered accounting irregularities at energy company Enron, leading to an historic audit and the company’s downfall; Coleen Rowley, who exposed failures on the part of the FBI to heed warnings from her office about one of the conspirators in the September 11 attacks; and Cynthia Cooper, who exposed fraud within telecommunications company WorldCom. Each of them took on bodies far larger and more powerful than any of them individually — and each one made a difference. Yet of their efforts, Cooper simply said, “We don’t feel like we are heroes.”
A slew of sexual misconduct allegations against former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein were brought to light in a New York Times article published October 2017. The piece details decades of harassment and payoffs — the reporting that followed would also bring assault allegations to light. It brought forth a moment of reckoning in America regarding a problem of inappropriate sexual conduct that extends into most every industry in the nation. It brought new energy to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, which brings survivors together. And it’s all thanks to those who spoke out against an especially powerful man.