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Research: Online, the Message to Women Is Shut Up!

While some dismiss this growing problem of online harassment as simply harmless male trolls spewing their venom, such abuse is driving women journalists off the web. Why the differential between threats to women and men? The answer lies in persistent stereotypes about women, power and speech.
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Harassment of women journalists online seems to be growing at an alarming rate -- and it dovetails with new research about women and speech.

An article by journalist Amanda Hess went viral on the Internet recently, describing the horrendous messages she and other women who expressed opinions on the web have received. Hess discovered that someone going by the username "headlessfemalepig" tweeted, "I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for 'manslaughter', I killed a woman... Happy to say we live in the same state. I'm looking you up, and when I find you, I'm going to rape you and remove your head."

The tweeter ended with "You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this."

Hess cited other messages to women journalists that included a rape threat, a wish to "put a bullet in your brain," and a bomb threat that read, "A bomb has been placed outside your home. it will go off at exactly 10:47 pm on a timer and trigger destroying everything."

The Internet lit up with other women reporting on the vile threats they have received after they published almost any sort of content.

The Pew Center, which has been following online activity since 2000, finds that threats are directed far more at women than at men. And in 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland created bogus online accounts and then sent them into chat rooms.
Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.

While some dismiss this growing problem as simply harmless male trolls spewing their venom, such abuse is driving women journalists off the web.

Why the differential between threats to women and men? The answer lies in persistent stereotypes about women, power and speech.

We reviewed hundreds of studies for our book The New Soft War on Women and found a clear consensus. Gender discrimination hasn't disappeared -- far from it. In most cases, bias has simply gone underground, where it is more subtle and harder to spot. A major exception is the web, where the most extreme language about women is commonplace, and growing.

Why the targeting of women who express opinions online? Because public speech is power, and the prohibitions against such speech by women are ancient.

The Bible (1Timothy 2:12) decrees: " not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet."

Strictures against women speaking in public go back to antiquity and continued throughout most of history. In 1837, a group of American Congregationalist ministers published a letter declaring that a woman who spoke publicly would "not only cease to bear fruit [i.e., become infertile], but fall in shame and dishonor in the dust."

If women are powerful, they can't be caring nurturant, self-sacrificing and submissive. And they have often been punished for stepping outside these gender role boundaries. You'd think these ancient strictures would have vanished by now, with fully half the workforce being female. Not so.

The rules of the power game still differ for men and women, reported Victoria Brescoll, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale.

Using actual speech data from the U. S. Senate (2012), she discovered a significant relationship between power and volubility (i. e., the total time senators spoke on the Senate floor). This finding was not surprising, Brescoll noted, because "the more an individual verbally participates, the more likely that individual will be seen as having power."

However, there was a twist: Male senators showed a significant positive relationship between power and volubility, but female senators did not. Speech can deflate women's power, not enhance it.

Using additional data, Brescoll found that "a female CEO who talked disproportionately longer than others in an organizational setting was rated as significantly less competent and less suitable for leadership than a male CEO who talked for an equivalent amount of time."

So, even high-powered women are punished for talking too much.

And most people think that women talk much more than men anyhow (and maybe they should shut up!) In the bestseller The Female Brain, author Louann Brizendine stated that women use 20,000 words per day, while men use only 7,000. This "fact" showed up in dozens of magazines and newspapers around the globe.

But a seven-year study of men's and women's speech by psychologist James Pennebaker of the University of Texas (Austin) found that both genders use roughly the same number of words each day, about 16,000.

And women for a long time have been scarce on TV political talk shows. Politico noted that "vital women's voices [are] being muffled on Sunday shows that historically are an important platform of Washington power."

As critic Howard Kurtz once put it, the folks who are guests on these shows "have one thing in common. They don't wear pantyhose."

Is there a connection between the attitudes about women's speech in mainstream media, business and politics and the torrent of abuse heaped on opinionated women on the web? One is subtle and the other is as in-your face-as it gets. But both stem from a long, sad tradition: Women, hold your tongues!


Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors
The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men -- and Our Economy. (Tarcher/Penguin)