International Women’s Day: Break the bias on online abuse

This year’s International Women’s Day theme – #BreakTheBias – is incredibly relevant to our efforts to help women have safer experiences online, where misogyny and the abuse of women continues to fester. 

As Australia’s eSafety Commissioner I have seen both the benefits and the enormous challenges women face in the online world.

Though I have always believed that the internet could serve as a ‘great leveller’ for the voices of women, recent research by eSafety has found that online abuse of working women continues to be commonplace in Australia.

One in three women experience online abuse in their working lives, our new Women in the Spotlight: Women’s experiences with online abuse in their working lives report shows.

Worryingly, the rate of abuse is much higher for women who are younger, have disability or who identify as LGBTIQ+.

Women felt most of the online vitriol they received was gendered and focused on their physical appearance and roles as working mothers. The abuse sometimes involved threats of rape or harm towards their families.

Our study shows this targeted abuse has a severe impact on women’s mental health, causes reputational damage and can have serious consequences for their careers. 

It is not surprisingly then that nearly a quarter of the women abused online said they were reluctant to move into leadership positions that would require them to be in the media or online. This was almost double for women with disability.

The ‘levelling effect’ of the internet that was once hoped for has instead served to silence women’s voices and entrench existing inequalities.

It is even more unfortunate that many women feel helpless in the face of this type of abuse.

Our research found most women try to ignore the abuse and believe it’s part of the professional landscape. They also feel they had limited recourse available to them and are dismissed when seeking help from their employers, online platforms or law enforcement.

One of the women surveyed for the study described how she was abused and the way her employer responded: “They really came after me, tried to get me in trouble, and rang my boss, telling her all these things, trying to make out that the things I had posted on Twitter showed I had an agenda. They had been harassing me and I was the one who ended up in a disciplinary hearing.”

This insidious abuse could have severe economic consequences for women in the long term.
eSafety continues to work with organisations around the country to prevent it happening, and support those who experience it. 

Our Women In The Spotlight (WITS) program offers social media self-defence training to help women use social media platforms more safely and effectively, report online abuse and protect their own wellbeing. 

eSafety’s world-first Adult Cyber Abuse scheme came into effect earlier this year and gives Australian adults who are the victims of seriously harmful online abuse somewhere to turn when online platforms fail to act.

However, systemic societal change is needed to ensure women’s voices are not silenced online. 

Employers and online platforms need to do a lot more to prevent abuse as well as provide workplace support and resources to those who experience it.

Breaking the bias of online abuse is essential for women to work safely online and succeed professionally in the modern world.