Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Blog

Women's Access to Public Life is Restricted by Incivility and Discrimination

Michael Drolet and Agnès Alexandre-Collier


Marten Bjork

| 6 mins read

For some time now, women in the UK—particularly women in Parliament and public life—have been subject to physical and verbal abuse, threats, and merciless assaults in the press. In 2019, The Fawcett Society found that 59 per cent of women said they would not stand as an MP. Today that figure has risen to 74 per cent, with almost 70 per cent of respondents citing abuse or harassment as a reason for not pursuing a career in politics. Clearly, women's access to public life is increasingly restricted by these forms of intimidation.

A growing problem

The Brexit campaign and post-referendum debates were vituperative and ill-tempered, unleashing demons that shook many people's faith in the norms of civility that frame rational debate in Parliament and public life. It caused people to wonder whether those norms were never more than superficial conventions that lent a veneer of civility to a form of politics that was hostile to women, a veneer that in the heat of debate was all too easily seared away.

In her recent Journal of Politics article, Sandra Håkansson noted that much political science literature, and the legislative agenda of many states, has dealt with parity in representation. The questions of women's uncivil treatment, abuse and intimidation receive significantly less treatment, despite having a direct bearing on representation. She concludes that ‘there is a substantial gender gap in violence exposure among top politicians’, ‘that women are penalised more than men for substantively representing minorities’ and that ‘visibility in media is more highly correlated with violence for female politicians than male’.

It appears that the greater the inroads women parliamentarians make in challenging and altering established power structures, and the greater their visibility, the more women end up being subject to aggression, intimidation, and violence. Why?

One common refrain in answer to that question is how social media have appeared to exacerbate abusive treatment of women in Parliament and the public sphere. Here, ease and immediacy compress the distance between MPs and voters, thereby stripping away a socio-political organisation of rank and accompanying deferential practices.

The UK government's response to this problem is to apply its own form of discipline and punishment through the introduction of stronger penalties to stem online abuse, while neglecting the more fundamental cultural and educational changes that are necessary to foster a society of inclusivity, sensitivity, and respect. Only through engaging in making these more fundamental changes will we be able to rethink and refashion modes of address that support the kind of conversation necessary to a vibrant and flourishing democracy, and that can re-engage a citizen body that is increasingly disenchanted and disengaged.

Women and the Politics of Civility/Incivility

The worsening of the condition of women in public life catalysed a roundtable and workshop on Women and the Politics of Civility/Incivility in Parliament and Public Life in May 2021. The papers delivered at that workshop make up a special issue of The Political Quarterly which is available to read online.

In the special issue, Dame Laura Cox makes an impassioned case for sustaining and nourishing the art of effective communication. She makes several recommendations, from more rigorous parliamentary procedures to address harassment, to increasing the number of women in decision-making positions.

Deborah Cameron tackles the under-representation of women in political life, questioning the widespread belief that women are disadvantaged by the adversarial style of speech which dominates political discourse. Rather, she claims, women are held to higher standards of civility than men, meaning they are ‘expected both to show more respect for others’ speaking rights and to display a higher level of tolerance for infringements of their own rights’.

Collignon, Campbell, and Rüdig explore the role gender played in the harassment of candidates during the 2017 and 2019 election campaigns, showing that three in every four women experienced some levels of fear while campaigning, and that this was even worse for ethnic minority women.

Eve Gianoncelli focusses on what she calls the ‘antifeminist conservative women intellectual discourse’, suggesting that women are not only the targets, but also the ‘perpetrators’ of incivility. And Smith and Higgins show how incivility has become a means for the development of a new Scottish political style, combining ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘exasperated spontaneity’, and that this has emerged as a reaction to the feminisation of Scottish political leadership.

Gillian Peele’s possible solutions to the erosion of civility include monitoring and enforcing rules on language and behaviour in political and social life, as well as awareness-raising about respect for others, such as targeted training inside institutions.

Finally, Harriet Wistrich explores how the domination of misogyny in political life leads to legislative blind spots that fail to protect women from abuse, whilst Zrinka Bralo shows how such abuse, intimidation and violence have become inevitable and well-known consequences of the UK's ‘hostile immigration environment’. Might this official designation and the policy to which it refers, which exposes refugees, particularly women and children, to the depredations of a capricious, arbitrary, and vengeful atmosphere, be a logical consequence of a political culture that, in being coarsened by incivility, has become discriminatory?

While women have made great strides in transforming political life in the UK, these gains are fragile and much more needs to be done. Fashioning an inclusive, cooperative, and public-spirited political culture, in which women are treated as equal partners, is a most urgent task in this era of anger and political disengagement.

Michael Drolet and Agnès Alexandre-Collier are co-editors of the forthcoming (93 1) special section in the Political Quarterly journal: 'Women and the politics of incivility and discrimination'.

  • Michael Drolet

    Michael Drolet

    Michael Drolet is Senior Research Fellow in the History of Political Thought, Worcester College, University of Oxford.

    Articles by Michael Drolet
  • Agnès Alexandre-Collier

    Agnès Alexandre-Collier

    Agnès Alexandre-Collier is Professor of British Politics, Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté, Dijon.

    Articles by Agnès Alexandre-Collier