Gendered online harassment – what’s law got to do with it?

The graphic shows a dark purple background with white left-aligned text quote that reads "Online abuse reflects the offline world where women’s visibility and influence in the public sphere has long been resisted. It also represents a larger and ongoing backlash against hard-won and fragile feminist gains.". The quote is attributed to Claire Kish, University of Glasgow. In the top right-hand corner of the graphic there is Engender's logo, which is an equals sign in a white circle.

Claire Kish is currently in the second year of her PhD in Sociology and is based in the University of Glasgow’s Sociology department. Her PhD research explores the online harassment of women in journalism focusing on professional harms and organisational dimensions. Here she writes about a project she has been working on with Engender:

I recently completed a project for Engender which explores the legal responsibilities of employers with respect to the online harassment of workers. I specifically focused on women journalists because they face significant and severe abuse online, often as a result of performing key duties of the role. Yet the results have wider significance - especially as more work shifts online and employers increasingly utilise social media for business purposes. These changes have significant gendered and intersectional impacts as there are risks associated with being online which for women, especially minoritised women, are amplified. Given that women journalists are facing online harassment when carrying out work for their employers, we need to approach this as an employment and workers’ rights issue. So my project examined existing UK employment laws to identify and understand what legal duties employers have to uphold the rights of their women employees.

Why is the online harassment of women journalists important?

Firstly, online harassment is gendered and intersectional both in terms of the patterns and substance of abuse. The same is true for abuse targeting journalists, for example, women journalists received three times more abuse on Twitter than men, and minoritised women journalists (e.g., those identifying as Black, Asian, Indigenous, LGBTQI+ or disabled) are targeted more than white women journalists. While male journalists face abuse this is more likely to focus on their work; women journalists face identity-based abuse which tends to be highly sexualised, violent and misogynistic while minoritized women receive abuse targeting multiple aspects of their identity. Furthermore, women journalists face heightened abuse when covering traditionally male-dominated topics like sport, politics or technology, or when writing about male violence, women’s rights, gender equality or feminism. Online abuse reflects the offline world where women’s visibility and influence in the public sphere has long been resisted. It also represents a larger and ongoing backlash against hard-won and fragile feminist gains.

This problem clearly has negative implications for journalism – both its quality, and its capacity to represent women, include women’s voices and perspectives, and address gender equality issues. The aim is to silence any challenges to social structures and power relations which primarily benefit men. Given that women journalists tend to respond to online harassment by self-censoring and avoiding or limiting engagement on social media, the strategy clearly works. However, this prevents women journalists from performing key duties which most media employers either demand or expect, disadvantaging them relative to their male colleagues. For example, employers value and often prefer recruiting journalists with active, visible online profiles and/or a large social media following, which for women, especially minoritised women, means greater exposure to online abuse. These potential disadvantages are compounded by widespread inaction and the failure of employers to protect or support women journalists in addressing the gendered and intersectional hazards and harms associated with online work.

Legal remedies?

My project examined UK employment and equality legislation and found that these offer significant protections. And while online/technology-facilitated forms of harassment are not included in the legislation, the associated guidance clarifies that they are in fact covered. While I believed legal protections would exist the strength of these was surprising, which perhaps reflects how most research on this topic overlooks employment law. The Equality Act offers protections for women journalists against suffering unfair or less favourable treatment (e.g., Direct Discrimination) or disadvantage related to universally applied policies, criteria or practices (e.g., Indirect Discrimination) relative to men. Health and safety legislation also offers protections against workplace or work-related harassment and violence and suffering physical or mental illness or injury.

These laws offer protections against many of the harms identified in the literature. For example, if women journalists lose work after facing online abuse or complaining about it, this constitutes unlawful discrimination or “Victimisation” under the Equality Act. Criteria for bonus pay or recruitment based on social media metrics could also be unlawful, gender-based, direct or indirect discrimination, given that statistics show online harassment targets women journalists more than men - creating unequal conditions for meeting such criteria. Similarly, this means the common requirement, universally applied, for journalists to engage online disadvantages women and minoritised journalists by exposing them to greater risks of online abuse which, again, would be unlawful indirect discrimination. Under health and safety legislation employers must assess and introduce measures to mitigate workplace or work-related safety risks, including of harassment and violence. Employers are also required to identify at-risk workers and tailor risk assessments and controls to protect these groups. Importantly, guidance also specifies these duties cover risks from any source (e.g., members of the public), medium (e.g., online or technology-facilitated) and risks faced both within and outside of normal workplaces and hours. This effectively places a legal duty on employers to protect journalists from online harassment and to address the specific needs of women and minoritised journalists.

So what does this mean?

Overall, I found the breadth of legal protections surprising, particularly those under health and safety legislation, which perhaps reflects the relative silence around employers’ responsibilities generally but particularly in legal terms. This silence includes within the UK Government’s own plans for protecting journalists. While the existence of such a plan is encouraging as it indicates a recognition of the seriousness of this problem and its negative implications, there is insufficient focus on gendered and intersectional hazards and the heightened risks and harms women and minoritised journalists experience. It’s also a missed opportunity to highlight employers’ legal duties or to address potential inequalities resulting from online harassment or threats to gender equality and diversity within and through journalism. These oversights are significant and indicate a reluctance to prioritise women or marginalised groups utilising existing laws which, in theory, provide protections against harassment, violence and discrimination. Journalists are workers who have rights under existing UK employment legislation and their employers must not be allowed to continue as though they are exempt from these laws. We need to challenge this non-compliance by raising awareness and building pressure on employers to fulfil their legal responsibilities, and on regulators to fulfil their enforcement duties in this industry. We also need to reject the notion that the online abuse is unavoidable or unmanageable – this simply allows employers’ inaction to go unchallenged.

Journalism plays a key role in shaping public understanding and attitudes, and has the potential to bring about positive changes towards gender equality. To do this journalism must be diverse and represent women from all backgrounds. Without urgent action from employers who understand the harms caused and their legal duties to protect staff, gendered online harassment threatens to exacerbate existing inequalities in journalism. While the Scottish Government has no power over employment legislation they can lead positive change by supporting activities aimed at improving awareness among media employers of their legal duties and best practices for managing online abuse and preventing associated gendered inequalities. They might also support activities aimed at improving public interest journalism in Scotland as long as these place diversity and gender equality in the industry and its outputs at their heart. Such actions have the potential to create a world-leading Scottish media landscape which represents the Scottish people and plays an important part in bringing about social progress rooted in dignity, respect and inclusion.

Read Claire's report on gendered online harassment of women journalists here.

Engender occasionally works with students as part of their placement requirements for university or college courses - this allows students to work with Engender on specific areas of our work for women's equality. Student blogs form part of their course assessment, and they do not receive payment from Engender.

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