How Powerful Women Experience Extreme Online Sexual Harassment And What You Can Do To Stop It
“Many of our most high-profile women, particularly those in entertainment and broadcasting, were subjected to dozens of sexually explicit and objectifying messages every single day, with threats of violence being most prolific among politicians,” said Faye Raincock, head of communications for Havas UK, the media and communications group.
Raincock recently commissioned research to understand the social media experience of powerful women. The research investigated 50 million tweets over a six-month period that 152 powerful women received. These women leaders were from a range of backgrounds including politics, broadcasting, sports, entertainment and business.
“We realized that a study of the treatment of our most powerful women had never been carried out on this scale before and the results were shocking. Over six and a half million tweets involving abuse were sent over this time to these women. That is over 200 abusive tweets to each woman every single day,” Raincock said.
Powerful women not only experienced a high volume of online harassment but also broad range of abuse such as, gender specific slurs, attacks on individual intellect and ability, body objectification, sexual harassment and even threats of sexual violence. In this interview Raincock shares the impact of these findings and what each of us can do to prevent online abuse.
Michelle King: Who are the perpetrators of online harassment?
Faye Raincock: One of the most surprising elements of the research was the gender of the perpetrators of this online abuse. The assumption might be that men are largely responsible but across all the areas of abuse there was very little difference between the number of men and women sending the messages. In fact, when it came to sexual harassment and body objectification, more than a third of the abusive posts our powerful women received were from an equal number of men and women.
Our research didn’t specifically ask why this happened, but we did notice a trend in the research towards posts from the media. Over the same six-month period of the study, we found 1,200 posts from high-profile media owners that featured our powerful women and they concentrated almost exclusively on the way they looked.
So, we believe that these posts and millions more like it around the world, play their part in creating the permissive society that makes it ok to objectify women in this way.
King: How do women face this abuse as part of their job?
Raincock: The most high-profile examples in the public sector relate to political leaders from around the world. Unfortunately, these women’s experiences are well documented but no less shocking. In fact, female politicians were among the worst affected when it came to tweets involving the most serious of the categories: threats of sexual violence.
Female broadcasters and news presenters we analyzed were also exposed to significant levels of abuse in their jobs. These women were repeatedly and relentlessly targeted with tweets discussing their looks and their bodies, with many straying into sexually explicit and threatening territory every day.
King: What is the impact of this type of harassment?
Raincock: The impact is hard to quantify but we believe it has both personal and societal consequences. The damage that online bullying can have on teenagers and children is well documented with some high-profile cases of suicide and self-harming due to the experience of being abused and attacked online. Just because many of these women have reached the most senior positions in business and public life doesn’t mean they are not affected by online abuse.
Many of the powerful women we contacted about the results of our survey were not surprised by the scale of what we found, but they were reluctant to speak openly about it, mindful of the risks of opening themselves up to yet more abuse.
King: Given that a lot of this happens to women in the workplace what can organizations do to support women with this issue?
Raincock: As a result of our research we’re calling for a couple of things to happen. We would like both women and men to think before they post. No matter what you think about a person professionally, politically or philosophically, if you must criticize them don’t make it about their gender! Please remember that just because a social media post is sent from a distance, it doesn’t mean it won’t hurt the person receiving it. And remember that everything you share online is in the public domain, so you’re sending a message to society that this type of behavior is acceptable.
We are also calling on the media to take responsibility for the way they represent women in the press. It’s not just the obvious glaring examples but a more low-level, pervasive and repetitive representation of women as objects of desire to be commented on — that makes it OK for society to constantly judge women on the way they look rather than their ability or intellect.
King: What can women do to take a stand against online harassment and also better support other women on this issue?
Raincock: I would encourage everyone to consider some key rules for how they engage online. Firstly, never post abusive, sexually explicit or inappropriate comments but also stop and think about the language you use when on social media. I mean 140 little characters can still do a lot of damage!
Secondly, never tweet or post in anger. Put your phone down. Take a deep breath and then look at it again before you press send. But lastly, and most importantly, support other women who call out their abusers online. Re-tweet their messages and share messages of support with your own followers. That way we can spread the word that we will not tolerate sexism online any longer.