International Women’s Day 2020: women in public life deserve better

On International Women’s Day, we have a lot to celebrate regarding the participation of women in public life. At home, our last election saw a record number of women members of Parliament elected; and women in public life in the UK and across the world continue to make waves, and champion causes from climate change to social justice to peace. As Rachel Reeves MP argues in her new book, some of the last century’s biggest achievements were driven by committed women MPs, such as “equal pay for women, maternity and paternity leave, child benefit, abortion law reform, equal guardianship of children and action on domestic violence”. 

But for some of our women representatives, the cost of participation remains too high. It’s well recognised that online abuse and harassment against MPs is pervasive; that it can have a profound psychological impact on individuals; and that it disproportionately affects women, particularly Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women. Before the last election, a number of women MPs stood down in part because of abuse they had suffered in public life. And ‘gender norms and expectations’ have been highlighted as a continued barrier to women participating in politics across Europe. 

We might laugh when we read during an election campaign, a hoax story that a woman party leader attacks squirrels – after all, isn’t ‘fake news’ something that only other people believe? But we shouldn’t overlook the insidious way that information campaigns online not only affect individuals, but also work to shape wider political narratives. They affect who is included and who is listened to – and who is excluded from public discourse. 

We see these gendered disinformation campaigns occur across the world – false or distorted information being shared, particularly online, aiming to embarrass, threaten, discredit or undermine political actors on the basis of gendered tropes. Though this can affect people of all genders, we see it particularly targeted at women. For instance: women politicians being targeted with false stories about sexual relationships; insulted for their appearance; false claims being made about their actions and beliefs; and photoshopped images or edited videos of them being circulated. A survey of women parliamentarians around the world found over 40% had seen sexual or humiliating images of them shared on social media. 

Over the next few months Demos will build on its work on disinformation online, to look specifically at gendered forms of disinformation. Our first steps will be to investigate how they spread, what forms they take and how they relate to wider policy and discourse. (If this is something you are also working on, please do get in touch!)

This will form part of the wider work Demos is doing to build a more open, connected, empathetic and harmonious political debate. As we argued in our pre-election Manifesto last year, we are deeply in need of a new kind of politics – rather than one shaped by divisions, we need one where people from all walks of life can come together to find collective answers to the big challenges we face, without fear, exclusion or discrimination. 

Today, it is important not only to celebrate women, but commit to supporting women from all backgrounds and communities to participate freely and fully in public life.