Sexism, harassment, bullying and social media

Sexism, harassment and bullying were again featured in the 2020 local government election period. Although we are not the primary body which would receive serious or criminal complaints of this nature10, we received 18 election complaints which mentioned harassment, threats or intimidation in 2020. A further 25 complaints mentioned defamation.

“I was accused of being a homophobe, corrupt and a dog killer. I had fringe radicals calling me a 3am and threatening to kill me. I didn’t call the police, I figure if someone was going to kill me then they were not going to tell me first. My wife also received a few death threats. It didn’t worry me, but it worried my wife and children.”

– Councillor re-elected in 2020

We observed that social media has fuelled harassment and bullying as it allows the behaviour to be done anonymously or by people using fake accounts. Comments in a closed Facebook group set up to advance female representation in Victorian councils, ‘More women for local government’, indicated that women candidates bear the brunt of bad behaviour.

A record number of women were elected to the October 2020 Victorian council elections in 2020 with 273 women elected, taking representation up to 43 per cent. However, research into the political careers of women in local government indicates that this may not be a cause for optimism. 11

“There was an information session about what it means to be a councillor but it didn’t really go into enough detail. I have found it difficult to juggle responsibilities for children with evening meetings.

“I am also aware that women are scrutinised more about what they wear and so I had to buy an entire new wardrobe. One of the male councillors wears the same suit to every meeting but there is a different expectation for female councillors.”

– Councillor elected for the first time in 2020

Our oversight role in council elections does not specifically look at gender but we will continue to observe the impact of sexism in local government elections. There are concerns that abuse and harassment online, particularly on social media, will dissuade women from standing for election.12

“Getting women elected as councillors is one thing – getting them to stay is another. The valuable skills and experience women gain after their first term is being lost because a lot of first-term women councillors don’t recontest and we need to understand why.”

– Former councillor who did not stand for re-election in 2020

9. Section 3 (1) is listed in Appendix 1

10. Serious or criminal complaints or harassment and bullying were referred to Victoria Police. Complaints of sexism were referred to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission

11. Women in Local Government: Understanding their Political Trajectories, is a four year research project funded by the Australian Research Council by Leah Ruppanner (University of Melbourne), Andrea Carson (LaTrobe University) and Gosia Mikolajczak (University of Melbourne), in partnership with the Victorian Local Governance Association. The project surveyed 110 male and 125 female newly elected Victorian councillors. Of those, 44 per cent of women and 23 per cent of men had reported experiencing repeated condescending behaviours during the campaign period.

12. Gender Equity Victoria’s submission to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Impacts of Social Media on Elections and Electoral Administration, viewed on 4 November 2020, stated that “gendered and identity-based cyberhate experienced by women politicians is a serious threat to our democracy”. The peak body for gender equity said that women were underrepresented in elected office in Victoria and British studies suggested online harassment and abuse makes it less likely women will stand for election.