From ‘Climate Barbie’ to “freedom of abuse”: Women in the online spotlight. photo shows panel and keynote speakerConference panel: Stephen Twigg, Maria Miller, Yasmin Qureshi, Fashia Hassan, Jennifer Robinson, Kingsley Abbott at the podium. [Above inset shows Catherine McKenna on Zoom]

“Climate Barbie” had been the name some detractors had given her. That was before Barbie became cool.

But when then Canadian Climate Minister Catherine McKenna answered back on social media to one of her critics, the nickname went viral and the online harassment kicked in. The situation grew to Ms McKenna needing security for her family.

The former minister, who today tackles climate change, was the keynote speaker at a 20 March conference entitled Combatting Online Harassment and Violence Against Women Parliamentarians. She joined the conference, held at the University of London’s Senate House, via Zoom from Ottawa. The conference was organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS), the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and the Canadian High Commission as part of the March events around International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Week.

The panel in London were UK MP Dame Maria Miller, UK MP Yasmin Qureshi, South African MP Fasiha Hassan and UK barrister Jennifer Robinson, in conversation with CPA Secretary-General Stephen Twigg.

University of London Vice-Chancellor Wendy Thompson opened the conference by pointing out that women parliamentarians are seven times more likely to face abuse than their male colleagues. The figures increase for women of colour. Professor Thompson said that this caused problems for democracy when women either suffer in silence or quit the public sphere.

“We all lose”, she said.

“If half your population don’t want to run [for public office] … it’s a problem for democracy,” Catherine McKenna said in her keynote speech.

Stephen Twigg said that the situation led to a loss of representation in politics.

“This is not OK!”

It had been Ms McKenna’s decision that it was “not OK” to demean her online that led to her becoming known beyond her climate portfolio in Justin Trudeau’s administration. She had been attending an important climate conference when a former Canadian minister used the name “Climate Barbie” on social media. It had been a term bumping around the corridors of power in Ottawa during the 1990s since her appointment.

“It was clearly meant to diminish me,” Ms McKenna told the ICwS conference. She had said nothing about the nickname for a long time following the advice of her team but this was now more public. She asked whether a male politician would want this to happen to a wife or daughter, leading to a “largely positive reaction” from people on social media that this was no way to treat a politician.

The response had started online but then went offline. People stopped in front of her home, others sent her Barbie dolls, her staff faced harassment and comments were written on her campaign office. She described the responses as “intrusive” and “worrying” for her family. On the flip side, women called her asking for help in dealing with harassment.

She added that “it’s 100% worse” if the person in the spotlight is indigenous, black or transgender.

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Around the Commonwealth

The panel took over to outline how online harassment was a wider issue. Fasiha Hassan related how online harassment can have an impact on a politician’s physical presence in a country where women live in fear of attack. She had been tackled on how she dressed from her early days in parliament in 2019. She’d been advised not to “lash out” at any critics. “If you let your guard down on social media, you are attacked,” Ms Hassan said. On marrying a black African, she had been “terrified” to post her wedding photos during an election year. “I wish people had told me some of these things,” she said about her move into mainstream politics in South Africa. During the Q&A session, she said she no longer posted on social media in real time because she did not feel safe.

Dame Maria Miller, who is also CPA Chair and champions its work on women in parliament, said that, in her 20 years as a UK parliamentarian, she had seen “the way the conversation has changed”. She said that people had found the “ability to act with impunity online” and had learnt a behaviour that allowed them to “do anything they like online”. The result was that many women were concerned about entering politics, restricting the issues they would talk about when they did and shortening the time they spent in politics.

Yasmin Qureshi pointed out that the harassment grew for women of colour. “If you’re a Muslim, that’s a double whammy,” she said. She outlined how she’d been called a “traitor” and “disloyal” to her country for commenting on public issues in the UK and had faced racist and sexist abuse. One man had been imprisoned for harassing her. She said that mainstream media add to the issues by whipping up the public against a group of people. She added that political colleagues also failed to offer women politicians the support they need. She referred to the ongoing situation facing UK MP Diane Abbott whose supporters have called for Labour party backing following a Tory party donor’s comments.

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Not just politics

If the audience thought this was only about women in politics, the fourth panel member, barrister Jennifer Robinson, outlined what happens when women become high profile in journalism and in calling out domestic abuse. Ms Robinson is part of the legal team which represents the family of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and also represented actress Amber Heard in her domestic abuse case against Johnny Depp.

“This is a problem of culture … about women in power,” Ms Robinson said. She outlined online harassment directed at high-profile women from Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was assassinated in 2017, to female members of staff at the BBC’s Persian Service. “I’ve got journalists on stress leave because of this,” she told the session. On one of the most high-profile cases her chambers had dealt with – Amber Heard versus Johnny Depp – she said that she had never seen such an “onslaught of attacks” online.  Ms Robinson said that, no matter what the court had said, the misogynist attacks on Amber Heard grew, with people making money on social media feeds attacking her. She questioned what this would do for women considering reporting domestic abuse after what had happened to such a high-profile woman.

“The (social media) platforms are not responding,” Ms Robinson said, calling for a look at how to regulate this global environment.

Video of the 20th March conference:

“Call to action”

ICwS Director Prof Kingsley Abbott described the examples as a “call to action” to tackle a cultural problem for society.

Maria Miller pointed to a “grain of hope” as measures were put in place to prosecute abuse following the deaths of UK MPs Jo Cross in 2016 and David Arness in 2021.

During her keynote speech, Catherine McKenna pointed out that she had turned things around by shifting the ‘Climate Barbie’ narrative to a positive message. In 2022, she chaired a UN committee overseeing greenwashing and net-zero commitments.

Dame Maria and fellow MP Harriet Harman are behind a campaign to focus on the online language used towards women. They have also identified the need to push more women into the political arena to “change the conversation”. “One of the things you can do is stand for election,” Dame Maria said. She works with the CPA on training women parliamentarians in dealing with harassment.

Yasmin Qureshi said that the anonymity on Twitter/ X allowed people to target MPs. She said that if people faced the consequences of their actions they would stop.

Fasiha Hassan called for more support from other parliamentarians for those under attack and for journalists targeted after uncovering corruption. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” she said, suggesting an ombudsman or independent process, starting with the CPA, to look into online abuse. She suggested that tackling sexual harassment should become a clear priority for political parties.

“We need to hold the platforms accountable,” Jennifer Robinson said. “It is a cultural problem … about the way women are treated when they enter public space.”

“The question is, how do we regulate this global environment?”

Debbie Ransome is the website editor for the Round Table.