Women in power face sexual harassment online and in the media every day

Women in positions of power face regular and persistent slurs against their intellect and gender, along with threats of sexual harassment or violence from social media, according to a study by Havas Helia.

Women in power face sexual harassment online and in the media every day

The agency identified 152 women across five "power groups" – politics, news, entertainment and sport – and then examined how they are treated online.

The analysts looked at millions of data points using social listening and media coverage analysis to capture and interpret public and media conversations over a six-month period. It concentrated largely on Twitter and paid particular attention to the power of the language used towards and about the women in the sample.

The study found that out of more than 51 million tweets, analysed over a six-month period, 6.5 million (or 12%) involved abuse categorised as attacks on their intellect or ability, gender-specific slurs, sexual harassment or threats of sexual violence.

"That means that, of the 150 women whose online experiences we examined, on average each was subjected to over 40,000 (42,813 in total) abusive tweets over six months – that’s 238 abusive tweets relating to women’s sex every single day," the report said.

Even worse, if that woman is a global leader or a politician, she faced threats of sexual violence in 19% of those tweets. 

Taking one woman as an example, the report pointed out that the BBC had to hire a bodyguard for its political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, due to the extent and severity of recent online trolling she had experienced.

Havas Helia's study found that Kuenssberg had indeed been bombarded with a high number of abusive messages in the last six months. Most of them (91%) were gender-specific slurs or sexual harassment. 

The media is not innocent

The study also found a worrying trend in the way we write about, talk about and comment on women in positions of power.

Examples of this trend can be spotted almost daily in magazines, newspapers and TV programmes and includes such headlines as the now infamous "Legs-it?" Daily Mail front page (comparing the legs of prime minister Theresa May and first minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon during a crucial meeting about Scottish independence.)

The researchers found more than 1,200 incidents of high profile media vendors posting on social media about the bodies of these women's bodies during the research period.

They also found that broadcasters/TV presenters and global entertainers were the most likely to be subjected to body objectification of this nature in social posts (95% and 94% respectively). 

This means that just about every time they were talked about by media vendors on social media, the posts were about their physical and sexual appearance. 

This is true for celebrities who arguably don't trade on their over sexual self-representation, such as ITV This Morning's host, Holly Willoughby. Although more of an "everyday power woman", the report said, her body and appearance is frequently the subject of media coverage.