New research shows how the sexist abuse of women politicians can affect equality in Westminster.
There are many explanations for women’s lack of representation in UK politics. Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified for office (even if they are), and they’re also less likely to be encouraged to run. Research shows that British political parties have displayed gender bias when selecting candidates to run as MPs – and if even if women are elected, the lack of formal maternity leave and unsocial working hours make it difficult to juggle politics with parenting. Westminster’s image as a fusty, archaic place dominated by entitled Eton-educated sexual harassers, of course, doesn’t help matters.
But one of the most troubling issues preventing gender parity in UK politics is the fact that online abuse of politicians has become the norm – and it is disproportionately targeted at women.
The latest evidence to support this idea comes from an international study that compared the online treatment of prominent women politicians with their male counterparts. After analysing social media conversations about female and male political leaders in the UK, South Africa and Chile, the study found that the women were three times more likely than the men to receive sexist comments.
Three-quarters of Twitter posts about politicians’ appearance or marital status were directed towards women, rather than men. Most of these comments were negative, and had nothing to do with their political competence, the study found. And – surprise! – the majority of sexist messages being sent about women politicians were sent by men.
The report states that male and female politicians received similar levels of derogatory comments overall, but the “women were three times more likely to see derogatory comments directly related to their gender”.
In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May received three times as many comments on her physical appearance as her Labour counterpart Jeremy Corbyn, who was attacked predominantly for his political outlook and policies.
The report was conducted by Atalanta, a UK-based organisation that aims to increase the number of women holding senior government positions around the world.
“Sexism and abuse are everyday occurrences for many female politicians who are active online,” said Eva Barboni, the founder of Atalanta. “This takes a heavy toll on both the politicians themselves and on our broader democratic debate, particularly when it escalates from harassment to threats.”
Online abuse is often conceptualised as being ‘not as serious’ as in-person threats or harassment, with those who experience harassment on social media advised to simply ‘block and ignore’.
However, the report highlights the ways in which online sexism, harassment and threats can have a significant impact on our democracy, from distracting politicians from their work to undermining their status as leaders.
“The intent of gendered and sexualised attacks against women is often to delegitimise them as leaders and to question their right or their ability to serve in leadership roles,” said the study authors.
The threat of online abuse can cause female politicians to be wary about sharing information about themselves, the report continued, which can make them seem remote, unfriendly and “depersonalised” – reducing their chances of winning over the electorate.
Digital harassment was also cited as an intentional distraction preventing women politicians from focusing on their real work.
“Just the sheer volume of it is very, very tiring,” said Labour MP Jess Phillips. “When I reported it to the police, it became even more tiring because they relied on me to sift through thousands of messages across different platforms – Twitter, Facebook, my emails – to find all of the stuff that I was getting… That will just do your mental health no good.”
Perhaps most worryingly of all, the disproportionate level of abuse concerning women politicians’ personal lives can make them fear for their safety and that of their families – a fear that is particularly understandable after the 2016 murder of Jo Cox. This, in turn, can sometimes dissuade women from wanting to enter politics at all.
“[Online harassment] is something that I would advise people to think about carefully before they become an MP, so they know what they’re getting into,” said Labour MP Rachel Reeves. “I think it’s a shame that that’s one of the things that people have to consider.”
The study comes on the heels of other recent research showing that women are subjected to a significantly greater volume of attacks and threats online than men, often of a sexualised or gendered nature. Women of colour and religious minorities receive particularly high levels of online abuse: an Amnesty International study found that Diane Abbott received almost half of all abusive tweets in the six weeks leading up to last year’s snap election.
On the 100th anniversary of partial women’s suffrage in the UK, Theresa May said that the online abuse of women, LGTBQ and ethnic minority MPs “risks undermining the diverse democracy which we have built in this country over succeeding generations”.
She promised that the government would consult on making the online intimidation of MPs a criminal offence, and would publish a code of practice to help social media platforms “stamp out online abuse”.
However, it’s clear that if politics is to become properly representative of all genders, races and backgrounds, more has to be done to tackle the problem.
Considering pursuing a career in politics? Don’t be put off by the trolls – instead, read our inspiring advice from women political leaders.
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