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Tackling Violence against Women in Politics

The British Group of the IPU, hosted a lunchtime lecture on the 6th of June, chaired by Jan Grasty, President of the UK National Committee for UN Women, on violence against women in politics. The aim was to discuss whether stereotyping, misogyny and harassment through social media count as a form of violence against women in politics, and what measures may be taken to address such issues.

Mary Macleod MP, in her capacity as PPS to Maria Miller, Minster for Women and Equalities – and also a recent participant for BGIPU at the 57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57) at the UN in New York – welcomed that the importance of addressing the issue of violence against women has risen to such prominence in the international policy agenda. She said that appropriate portrayal of women in politics by the media is of vital importance in attaining gender equality. She pointed out that there are still small ways in which women are belittled and marginalised, for instance German Chancellor Angela Merkel being portrayed as a breastfeeding mother trying to wean Italy and France in a recent political cartoon published by the Sunday Times.

Ms Macleod said there is a need to fight back against these misogynistic and sexist portrayals of women leaders which would no doubt cause uproar if men were portrayed in similar ways. She said significant change was required in the conduct of politics and the way it was reported in the media to advance equality. While politicians were partly to blame themselves, including through combative and point-scoring approaches which led to low levels of regard and respect for politicians, it was also the media’s responsibility to use appropriate ways to report events, to help change attitudes and encourage non-sexist and fair portrayals of women in politics.

Roberta Blackman-Woods MP was Chair of the 2012 BGIPU/CPA UK International Parliamentary Conference on Gender & Politics and also participated in CSW57 for BGIPU. Delivering a presentation based on her New York contribution, she commended the IPU for putting the issue of violence against women in politics on the agenda and highlighted various examples in which the media tries to sexualize, emotionalize and trivialize women especially through using stereotypical or demeaning images and photos. She noted there is an excessive focus on women’s appearance such as their shoes, clothing and body shape and there is biased use of language e.g. referring to female politicians’ speeches in pejoratives such as “feisty” instead of “forceful”. She acknowledged that this form of condescension by the media also happens to male colleagues, but in the vast majority of cases it was directed at women.

Ms Blackman-Woods said patronising attitudes in the media and misogyny can be a strong disincentive for women considering running for office, including out of fear of the impact on their personal lives and families. There are also cases of direct threats to women’s safety if they run for office and women politicians need to build an alliance with the media to tackle this and provide a supportive environment for new women entering politics. She ended by commending Bolivia for being the first country to issue legislation specifically aimed at addressing violence against women in politics which had been discussed at CSW57.

The final presentation was from Dina Medland, a freelance journalist for the Financial Times. She highlighted how the media still do not understand how their reporting can amount to violence against women, often contributing to a culture of bullying and misogyny which effectively discourages women from public life. Under such conditions, casual sexism was too often dismissed as “mere banter” with suggestions that some women might need to “toughen up” to deal with the rough and tumble of political life. She noted it was often these subtle modalities which needed to be called out as unacceptable and addressed to prevent social acceptance of such attitudes.

Ms Medland said focusing on the weight or appearance of political leaders also served to diminish and belittle political discourse while also noting journalists were not the only culprits, with some politicians’ comments also to blame. She reflected that women’s capacity for empathy often leaves them more exposed to media attack on things they feel strongly about where the media adopt a belittling tone, particularly when resorting to ridicule and lazy stereotypes. She also noted how the female voice in the media has literally changed in recent memory (with women speaking in lower tones) perhaps reflecting changing public attitudes to women, including in carrying out prominent roles such a newsreaders and political leaders. The presentation ended with a positive example of how social media can work as an effective means to tackle violence against women with the recent example of activists forcing review of various posting policies, including by shaming advertisers and highlighting misogynistic posts appearing on social networks.