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Online Targets – Women in the Public Eye

We all know that social media can be a nasty stew of insults and prejudice, strong opinions and snap judgements. And while there seems to be plenty of that to go around for all kinds of people in the public eye, from performers to politicians, we can’t lose sight of the fact that women receive the brunt of especially brutal attacks that are specific to their gender.

This has played out in politics for far too long; for the past year, the talented women medical officers of health in many Canadian jurisdictions have also been viciously targeted. While they have been tireless in their efforts to keep us informed and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have also been hit with a vile kind of attack just because they’re women.

It starts subtly. A female medical officer of health is described as “school-teacherish.” A female political leader is derided as having a voice that sounds like “nails on a chalkboard.” An accomplished cabinet minister who happens to have long blonde hair is dismissed as a Barbie. These expressions signal that women in public life are different, and that their differentness is bad, opening the gates for the truly appalling stuff to follow.

Women in public positions are far too often on the receiving end of hateful comments about their weight, hair, clothing and personal lives. Worst of all are the rape threats. Few male leaders will ever have to contend with anything similar, unless, of course, such threats are aimed at their wives or daughters.

It can’t be surprising to learn that many women are opting not to run for office because of the ever-present online harassment; indeed, the bigger surprise is that so many still stick it out. But when women decide the hassle just isn’t worth it, that in turn means a loss of their skills, knowledge and experience in public office and their absence from discussions at the highest political levels.

And yet, they persist. The past year or so has made public health leaders from Bonnie Henry to Deena Hinshaw, Eileen de Villa and Theresa Tam into faces and names we’re all familiar with for their calm, clear presence even when faced with enormous pressure and criticism. As with female politicians, we don’t have to agree with every word they say to recognize that they deserve respect and freedom from harassment just because they are women.

Women who have leadership roles shouldn’t be exempt from criticism. Holding back on legitimately criticizing a female leader because of her gender is just another form of sexism. Good people of all genders have to speak up at the first signs of gender-based harassment of women in public life. By all means, criticize their policy choices, but leave their looks, voices and sexuality alone.

By Nancy Payne

Clockwise: Dr. Theresa Tam, Dr. Bonnie Henry, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Dr. Deena Hinshaw