Why women do their duty

Observations on whistle-blowers

Imagine for a moment that Katharine Gun, the GCHQ whistle-blower, had a twin brother named Kevin. Imagine he, too, was 29 years old, married, fluent in Mandarin Chinese and a linguist/translator at GCHQ. Imagine that a top-secret e-mail popped up on his computer screen (the result of a glitch) from a man named Frank Koza, a senior officer at America's National Security Agency. Imagine that Kevin read Koza's request for Britain's help in mounting a "surge" against certain member states of the UN Security Council opposed to the war in Iraq.

We know what Katharine felt when she read it. "I was pretty horrified and I felt the British intelligence services were being asked to do something that would undermine the whole UN democratic process," she remembers. Then she leaked the e-mail, it appeared in a national paper and she lost her job.

But what about Kevin? Would he have looked at it, pursed his lips in a low whistle and reflected that this confirmed what he thought was going on anyway? Or would he have toyed with the idea of leaking, before thinking of the size of his mortgage and his brilliant (future) career?

In other words, do women make the best whistle-blowers? Are they able to think more independently by virtue of their outsider status in most workplaces? Do they have a higher sense of public duty? In Britain lately, it has seemed that way. Gun showed not an ounce of regret after the case against her was dropped. Similarly, when the former cabinet minister Clare Short said on radio that she knew that Britain had been bugging the UN, nobody at Westminster had a kind word to say about her. But she doesn't seem to give a damn.

There is also the case of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Foreign Office senior legal adviser who quit over the war's legality. But she did not actually blow a whistle in the usual sense, and last year politicians of both sexes resigned over the war. It must be said that, at Westminster, female MPs have proved themselves just as able as their male counterparts, if not better, at toadying and stabbing others in the back.

There is no doubt however that, worldwide, it has been women who have blown the whistle the loudest. In America, Sherron Watkins was the Enron vice-president who warned that the company's accounting methods were improper. Cynthia Cooper blew the whistle at WorldCom and Coleen Rowley at the FBI. Here, David Shayler, the MI5 whistle-blower, has been the odd one out.

Guy Dehn, the director of the whistle-blowers' charity Public Concern at Work, believes women are more likely to act because they have less to lose. This is because most workplaces are male-dominated, and women see themselves as outsiders. (In female-dominated workplaces, the situation would be reversed.) And many women may also be less wedded to the idea of a career, in that most of them expect to have their work interrupted in some way by motherhood.

Women are, perhaps, simply more flexible in every way. Gun, for instance, may return to academia to study global ethics.

We may never know the gender of the biggest whistle-blower of all. Everyone has always assumed that "Deep Throat", like God, must be male. But, not for the first time, everyone could be wrong.

Ann Treneman writes for the Times