International Women's Day 2021

Bold women and online backlash

Leanne Patrick is a specialist nurse in Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence. She is a founding member of The RCN Feminist Network, freelance op-ed writer and editorial board member for Nursing Notes. For International Women’s Day 2021, Leanne writes about bold female voices and the backlash they face online.

This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge”, with specific focus on highlighting the voices of female healthcare professionals who have been missing from media commentary and leadership during COVID19.

Choosing to challenge is a philosophy I both believe in and live by; my job requires endless tenacity and our nursing code of conduct compels us to be advocates for our patients; challenging practice and discrimination. But being “vocal” and choosing to challenge comes with a cost, particularly for women who are routinely excluded from public life and punished for being bold, frank and leaderly. Over the years, choosing to challenge in polite and respectful debates has earned me significant abuse online. And this is never more true than when I speak about misogyny or women’s rights. What I have come to see is that bold women, when they demonstrate the audacity to continue being bold despite the consequences, will face repeated and persistent backlash. It does not diminish and it does not go away.

In 2018, Amnesty International reported on the findings of their 16-month long research exploring women’s experiences of using social media and the abuse they experience. Their report is aptly titled “Toxic Twitter – A Toxic Place For Women” and describes the rape and death threats, doxing, harassment and graphic images women are sent and experience every single day on Twitter. They conclude that it is not a safe place for women and that rampant misogyny is actively silencing women’s voices online. Women are rapidly disappearing from online spaces and there are no adequate protections to put a stop to it. And it has offline consequences; women are leaving politics and high-profile careers due to online harassment.

What does this mean for nurses and nursing discussions online? Particularly when, although there is a clear code of conduct for nurses to follow, it is possible for people to use an anonymous sockpuppet account to harass women in nursing without having to face accountability. Often, women are advised to block, not get involved or to ignore it; “don’t feed the trolls”. But this only succeeds in achieving the aims of misogyny by silencing women and ultimately shrinks the world of women even further. The responsibility is placed upon victims of abuse and harassment to vacate the online space, ignore harmful and toxic abuse and essentially pretend that it isn’t happening.

It is small wonder that women might choose not to challenge. By a process of classical conditioning alone, women’s silence is repeatedly reinforced as the only way to remain free from abuse and harassment. In some cases, their silence is reinforced as the only way to protect themselves from threats to their lives, families and/or livelihoods. And beyond this, women who repeatedly stand up to the abuse and more “minor” but repeated disrespect and insults are often seen to be argumentative as their bold challenges and rebuttals are continually problematised. The focus is on policing the tone of the woman engaging, not on those who attack, abuse and threaten her. It is just another layer of misogyny.

In order to ensure we aren’t complicit in pushing women in nursing out of online spaces, we need to be mindful as a profession of the toxic contexts that inform their online experiences. We also need to be mindful of the missing voices in discussions – those women censored by fear. This means we cannot persist in being bystanders when we observe toxic and abusive behaviours, or we do our female peers a disservice. We would not do this in a physical space and online should be no different; collective strength will ensure that women can participate without fear and serve to reinforce the ethics that should inform professional online discourse. Silence is a powerful message and a choice – one that serves to normalise the behaviour of the people we think we are just ignoring.

If we want women to choose to challenge, we need to grapple with what is stopping them and commit to action.

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