It has long been a cliche of our internet age that the comments section of an article will feature the worst of what humanity has to offer – every kind of discrimination and slander you can imagine, all supposedly enabled by the anonymity of the internet. But the same kinds of behaviour can be found on twitter where many people use their real names or aliases that can be readily linked to them. This bad behaviour, whether it’s trolling or something else, targets various “minorities” more often than not, but often seems to focus on a “minority” that’s actually a majority: the female half of the species. Why is it that women are a persecuted “minority” on the internet?
We Think Women are a Minority
In Canada, there are more women than men. This is a fact. It’s barely true, as women make up just slightly more than 50% of the population, but still they are a majority. In Ontario, where I live, we are above the national average – women are slightly more numerous in proportion to men. The United States, which elected a blatantly misogynist man to the presidency, has a nearly identical ratio of women to men as Ontario, and the US’s gender ratio has been that way for some time. And yet both men and women view women as the minority gender.
Our minds believe what we see more than what we learn. If I walk to work today and see only Chinese people in my neighbourhood, I’m going to believe my neighbourhood is entirely Chinese, even if I am given a report that says my neighbourhood is actually 25% Chinese, 25% Ethiopian, 15% Somalian, 15% Greek and 20% northern European.1 I am going to believe my eyes and my daily experience over some report because my brain has evolved that way.
This is why so many of us have disdain for “statistics” – they do not mesh with what we see on a daily basis. But statistics will never accurately portray our sample of reality: what we see on a daily basis will rarely if ever be an accurate statistical sample of the population as currently constituted. Human beings do not move around in perfect samples. If I get on the subway later today the car I choose will not have exactly 51% women. If it does, that would be kind of weird, right?
For all sorts of reasons, women have been underrepresented in the public life of most of countries \since public life existed. The reasons are manifold but the fact is real. For example: in October 2015, Canada held our last federal election. We elected 26% female Members of Parliament which set a new record for female representation in the Canadian House of Commons. This is just over half of what it should be, if women were represented proportionately. In the United States, female representation at the federal level is even lower, with only 19% of congresspeople being congresswomen. This lack of representation is only the most glaring, most visible example of the under-representation of women in public life. Women are underrepresented in many professions, not least in the so-called “c-suite.”
This leads both men and women to believe that women are a minority when they absolutely are not. And this belief is important because it is part of what fuels the perpetual sexism that allowed a con artist to beat a career politician in the most recent US presidential election and why, when all other things are equal, a man is always preferred to a woman for nearly any job. Most men, and a surprising number of women, feel women have a place in society that is not in public. However, things are changing.
A century of change in North America has seen way more women enter public life, as voters, as employees, as bosses, as protesters, even as world leaders. In the last 20 years, the internet has provided an equal access platform where women supposedly did not need to fight to be heard in the same way as they had during earlier battles. Anyone can access the internet, regardless of gender. There are no male (or female) gatekeepers preventing a woman from creating a website, joining a forum or creating a twitter profile and using that platform to speak out about things that matter to her.
Well, there are no official gatekeepers. Because, just as it is true that the comment sections are where the worst of humanity displays itself, it is also true that when a woman publishes a blog post, opines on a forum or shares her opinion on twitter, a whole host of men (and some women) are there to publicly condemn that woman for having an opinion, regardless of that opinion. This collective response comes from what is known as the patriarchy, the anomalous group of people (male and female) who perpetuate male dominance of society, regardless of the demographics.
There are many historical reasons for the existence of the patriarchy. What I want to focus on is a belief about the world that perpetuates the patriarchy at a time when we all know that there is no reason for it to continue to exist.
The Just World Fallacy and Women
Even if over 50% of the population is female, most of the politicians, businesspeople and prominent figures who dominate the public discourse and culture are male. If I only see a few women’s views represented, I can continue to believe men are in the majority. But now there are feminist websites, women-only forums and women talking to each other publicly on twitter. And, worse, women are infiltrating formerly men-only domains including everything from video games to journalism. It was fine when there were only a few token qualified women working making their voices heard, but most women aren’t cut out for occupations like journalism, professionally or intellectually.
We know this view is far more common than we’d like. And we know it’s flat out wrong. Why does it persist?
Most people think the world is fair. You may say to yourself that you truly believe the world is unfair but, deep down, most of us believe at least some aspects of the world are indeed fair and we will (or should) be treated fairly. Much of this idea is not at all about fairness for everyone, but only about fairness for us (ourselves, family, friends). And this idea of fairness for us is rooted in our experiences, i.e. the past. So when a man remembers the way things used to be, with women “knowing their place,” acting as caregivers rather than as presidents, he subconsciously views this state of things as fair. It was clearly not fair – the idea that its unfairness has to be explained over and over again is offensive and ridiculous – but us humans don’t think about fairness rationally most of the time. This “fair” state of things is the recently departed past, and its force in memory is incredible.
So the man thinks that and men have certain fixed roles and that this state of affairs is right and just. When more and more women choose to move into new roles, most of which were traditionally held by men, this state of affairs confronts the man with cognitive dissonance: if women and men are suited to different things, how is it possible that all these women are doing men’s work? Something is wrong. Something is unfair. Something is unjust.
The reaction to cognitive dissonance is rarely sensible. It is almost always one of strong negative emotions. So the man uses the relative anonymity of the internet to express his anger: he posts on forums, he posts on YouTube, he harasses women on twitter. If he was already unhappy before this injustice appeared to him, maybe he starts doing even worse things: he starts doxxing women or making fake 911 calls (“swatting”), so that the uppity woman is confronted by police in her own home for her transgressions.
(Of course cannot forget male self-interest here. In addition to the cognitive dissonance created by prominent, vocal women in ever-increasing numbers, there is also the threatening fact that the patriarchy benefits men more than women and a world with a more equitable distribution of occupations will benefit men less. This is also a source of fear and anger.)
The behaviour is abhorrent, but it does have a source – fear and anger over the changing state of the world. The question then becomes, how do we convince insecure men that this change is okay? How do we do this when many of these men hold important positions of power?
- I made up those numbers. I have no idea about the percentages of ethnicities in my neighbourhood. ↩