Online violence against women in politics: the cause and consequence
by Poppy Joy Watson
Earlier this month, along with millions of others, I ditched sleep in favour of the CNN news channel and watched as the US presidential election results poured in. Witnessing Biden’s win was well-worth the sleep deprivation, as was seeing the election of not only America’s first woman, but first woman of colour, vice president-elect Kamala Harris. Her victory is a triumph for women, but it begs the question – what took so long?
Harris’ election serves to remind us how far women have come in politics in the last century, and yet how far we still have to go before equal representation is reached in parliaments worldwide. Currently, just 21 women sit as the head of state or government in 193 countries, while as of February 2019, only 24.3% of all national parliamentarians were women. In Scotland, there is an illusion of more parity. We have a woman First Minister, and her government is gender equal. But the national statistics tell another story. Women, despite making up 52% of the Scottish population, account for just 36.4% of MSPs and 29.1% of local councillors. Until these figures are representative, the people in power cannot make decisions that reflect society.
There are a number of reasons why women are less likely than men to stand for election. To name a few; they must overcome gender stereotypes, tend to have more childcare responsibilities, and are more likely to experience under-confidence in their abilities than men. But a major impediment standing between women and a career in politics is the sheer amount of abuse female parliamentarians face for doing nothing other than their jobs. Abuse in public, parliament, and most prevalently of all, online.
Forms of violence against women in politics (VAWIP) are highly gendered in their motives, forms, and impacts. Such violence can target women specifically because of their gender, demonstrated by sexist threats and sexual violence. It can also aim to uphold gender norms and be motivated by a wish to discourage women from being or becoming active in politics. The United Nations Office of the High Commission on Human Rights asserts that violence against women in politics “consists of any act of gender-based violence, or threat of such acts, that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering and is directed against a woman in politics because she is a woman, or affects women disproportionately.”
The most predominant form of VAWIP is psychological, which encompasses everything from online harassment to verbal comments or gestures that cause psychological harm or suffering. The Inter-Parliamentary Union collected data from women politicians around the world and found psychological abuse affected 81.8% of the respondents. Among the types of psychological violence, 44.4% said they had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction. VAWP is a breach of human rights, and the impact can be devastating both personally and professionally. The cause is clear: gender inequality.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s research also shows that social media is the number one place in which psychological violence is committed against women in politics. For instance, research from the UK, USA, Chile and South Africa suggests that leading female politicians are over 300% more likely to experience derogatory comments related to their gender on Twitter compared to their male equivalents.
However, it’s important that any analysis of VAWP should consider factors other than gender. Research carried out by Amnesty International for their Toxic Twitter report took an intersectional approach and found, for example, that an individual’s religion or race can have a significant impact on how they are treated online. In particular, women from ethnic or religious minorities, lesbian, bisexual or transgender women and women with disabilities receive a disproportionate amount of abuse on Twitter.
For instance, Diane Abbot, the first black female MP in the UK, has experienced a staggering amount of racist and sexist online violence. She was the target of almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets to women MPs in the six weeks leading up to the snap general election in 2017. Speaking to Amnesty International, Abbot said: “[The online abuse I get] is highly racialized and it’s also gendered because people talk about rape and they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man. I get a double whammy. I‘m abused as a female politician and I’m abused as a black politician.”
And Scottish MP Mhari Black, an openly lesbian woman, has received great amounts of homophobic and misogynistic violence online. Speaking at a Westminster Hall debate about the need to class misogyny as a hate crime, she said: "I struggle to see any joke in being systematically called a dyke, a rug muncher, a slut, a whore, a scruffy bint… I've been assured multiple times that I don't have to worry because I am so ugly that no one would want to rape me. All of these insults have been tailored to me because I am a woman.”
Why should any person, regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation, be expected to put up with this because they work in the public domain? And what message does this send to women who are considering a career in politics? That’s exactly what many who work in politics are concerned about, including Kezia Dugdale, former Scottish Labour leader. Dugdale, who is now a director at the John Smith Centre – an organisation working to improve representation in politics - believes online abuse is the “single biggest turn off” for qualified women contemplating running for office. She would know, having experienced death threats on social media during her six-year tenure as an elected politician. Research in Australia found 60% of women aged 18 – 21 and 80% of women over 31 said they were less likely to stand for election after seeing how badly former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was treated in the press.
For some women who work in politics, the violence can be relentless and accumulative in nature, having an extreme psychological impact over time. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s study, it can limit their free speech, hamper their ability to fulfil their mandates, and even prevent them from running for additional terms. Ultimately, every time a woman politician’s ability to do her job is hindered by online abuse, so is the entire representative basis of democracy.
So, why can’t politicians just delete their social media and ignore the abuse? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For many, online platforms are important tools that allow them to communicate and listen to their constituents. Besides, women want to be on social media. When they aren’t being abused, it is a great way to exchange information and engage with others.
To help end online abuse of women politicians, we must acknowledge the issue and bring it to light. Social media companies should actually enforce their user guidelines and improve their reporting systems to ensure victims of violence are not ignored. They must also be more transparent about the number of reports of violence against women they deal with, and how they deal with them. If women politicians don’t trust that platforms like Twitter will take care of their complaints effectively, why would they bother reporting the abuse at all? Many don’t. There’s also no doubt that legislation designed to penalise cyber violence against women is necessary. It is not currently covered by a specific law in the UK.
Ultimately, to end all forms of violence against women in politics we must end gender inequality. It’s proving to be a long and slow journey, but the election of vice president-elect Kamala Harris indicates we’re on the right path.
My name is Poppy and I’m from a small village in the Highlands. I graduated with a degree in English, Journalism & Creative Writing from the University of Strathclyde in 2018, before setting off to Australia on a working holiday. I’m now studying for my NCTJ Diploma at Glasgow Clyde College. Being awarded the Write to End Violence Against Women Bursary is one of my proudest achievements and I have since had the opportunity to work with some incredibly inspiring people at Zero Tolerance and the Daily Record. I feel much more confident about my future job prospects in the journalism industry now I have experience writing for a national newspaper.