Noise and silence — the hate is gagging our women.

Amanda Millar is the founder of communications company amandamillar&co and has more than three decades of experience as a current affairs TV journalist. Here she gives her perspective on what happens when women, particularly those in leadership, fear the backlash of using their voice online.

Meet *Ngaire. Ngaire is a participant in one of our leadership training programmes. She’s a leader who desperately wants to go further, who knows she has a lot to offer, but also knows she has to ‘put herself out there.’

Ngaire has the qualifications, insights, and creative solutions to a high-profile social crisis. But she won’t step out or up. Why? Because, she says, “Why would I risk alienation, scrutiny, abuse and my well-being when I’ve seen what happens to women leaders in Aotearoa?”

Our society faces a grim future if half of its population is silenced in this way.

Democracy is about voices… All voices

Democracy is about voices. But more than that, a decent society is about voices.

All voices.

Loud, soft, angry, passionate, strong, confused and courageous voices.

For politicians and leaders to represent us, they need to reflect us. All of us. But the relationship between politics, leadership and women is fraught.

Studies and recent events show at worst, the relationship is dangerous.

At best, in the words of Facebook’s relationship status options, ‘it’s complicated’. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

“Misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women. It’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance.”

University of Auckland research found former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was the target of online vitriol up to 90 times more than any other high-profile figure.

We’re up against that word, misogyny. Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne argues that misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women. It’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Essentially, they don’t like us because we’re being women in a man’s world.

They make money from the vile words created by cowardly fingers and faceless mouths.

Social media and online platforms are fuelling the problem. There’s little motivation for them to blanket those flames of hate when they make money from the vile words created by cowardly fingers and faceless mouths.

Sensational content creates clicks, shares and comments. That’s engagement. That’s how digital platforms make money. This means sexism, misogyny, racism, hate, misery and disinformation are profitable for online platforms. That’s sickening, and we shouldn’t accept it.

“Harmful narratives are boosted and amplified through algorithms that make such content sticky and often viral”

Lucina Di Meco co-created #ShePersisted to raise the voices of global women leaders. She explains, “The design of the major digital platforms is largely responsible for the hellscape currently experienced by women online. Harmful narratives are boosted and amplified through algorithms that make such content sticky and often viral, through recommender systems built to maximise attention, and features that facilitate its rapid and widespread distribution.”

It goes further than our female politicians. It affects all of us as leaders and as women.

Here in New Zealand, mainstream media for the most part, have grown up. Ten years ago, it was all about getting ‘eyeballs on screens’. Since then our mainstream outlets have become the ‘mature older sibling’ that recognises it’s not cool to engage in clickbait.

Sadly, the social media platforms, especially the more alternative platforms such as Telegram, Gab and video channel Rumble, publish vile disinformation and misinformation unchecked. The more mainstream platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, still have major work to do too.

They’re winning. Hate and fear are silencing women.

Amnesty International research found in New Zealand around a third of women surveyed had experienced online abuse and harassment. Of those women, half said they used social media less or stopped altogether.

So where are their voices? This abuse has made it unsafe for these women to speak out online.That makes me angry. They are entitled to their opinions, to voice their beliefs and to feel safe to do so.

I’m driven to help all women strengthen their presence, their status and their voice. I want to encourage them to play big — to be fearless enough to take risks and to take the lead.

Tara Mohr, author and founder of the global Playing Big women’s leadership programme, says it’s important for women to stop thinking of criticism as a signal of a problem and to start seeing it as ‘part and parcel of doing important work’.

But what happens when criticism becomes hostile and deeply personal? We’re seeing more and more courageous female leaders, locally and internationally, being targeted with hate and gendered disinformation.

Make the abuse stop

This abuse has to stop. Tech companies have been called upon to make real changes, and here in New Zealand we have a specific law which covers sexist, racist and other harmful communication.

There are a range of suggested ways to combat abuse and harassment.

There’s the passive: “Ignore it, they’ll soon tire” like the well-meant advice on dealing with schoolyard bullies.

There’s the practical: Block, mute, report.

There’s also the pre-emptive: Google yourself. Think like a troll — what information is out there that they can exploit? Your address, connections to your friends, your family?

Why is it up to women?

Why do we women have to change our behaviour, mute our ideas, or temper our opinions? Why should we feel intimidated or reluctant to use our voices?

It’s because we’re paralysed by what the comments and consequences are likely to be. A study of women in 51 countries by the Economist found 1 in 3 women think twice about posting online.

It reminds me of the draconian lessons girls and women are taught to keep themselves ‘safe’ on a night out. ‘Don’t drink too much’, ‘stay in a group’, and the patronising, ‘don’t wear anything too revealing’.

It’s the perpetrators who need to be taught to NOT rape, assault or abuse.

The rape reference is uncomfortable but relevant. Many women who speak up or have a media profile are threatened with rape. A threat that doesn’t go away when you log off.

Courageous voices are retreating

One such Kiwi female reporter is former 60 Minutes colleague and now Stuff Circuit investigative journalist, Paula Penfold. She’s subjected to abuse almost daily but this escalated alarmingly when she released her award-winning documentary Fire & Fury. Suddenly the hatred, abuse and death threats exploded like a festering, toxic boil. As a result, her life and her freedom have been severely impacted.

Paula’s response: “It’s forced me to retreat. My voice has been limited and restricted as I’ve had to shutdown my online channels to minimise the attacks. I can’t freely express my opinions anymore. It makes me angry and frustrated that they win.”

Reporting the rape and death threats to police is futile. Nothing can be done, Paula says. Nobody can be held to account.

Her wish is for better laws but, in the meantime, solidarity in networks where other women are speaking up gives Paula a glimmer of hope.

How do we stop this brakeless bus?

If I could reach through the fibre (speaking both technologically and metaphorically) of those who write, share and ‘like’ this vile, toxic content, I’d ask them, “What are you afraid of?”

By all means, post your opinions on a subject. Engage in conversation around those ideas. But have enough confidence in your ability to defend the strength of those ideas that you don’t resort to personal and hostile attacks.

If you find yourself tempted to target the women you disagree with rather than the ideas, take a moment. Don’t post it. Don’t say it. Don’t share it. You need to be silent. The voices I want to hear are those that your attacks threaten to silence.

* Name changed


Global Women warmly thanks Member Amanda Millar, for sharing her voice, expertise and platform in exploring and speaking out about this important issue.