Sexism isn’t just bad for women—it’s bad for democracy

Still fighting for equality.
Still fighting for equality.
Image: Reuters/Stefanie Loos
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Perhaps this point isn’t made often enough: Sexual harassment isn’t just bad for the women who experience it. Because sexual harassment prevents women from effectively and efficiently doing their jobs, it’s bad for everyone who depends on their work.

That problem is abundantly clear in a report published today (Oct. 16) by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a cross-governmental organization, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The report has some stark findings about how European governments are failing to protect women—including both members of parliament and staffers—from harassment, abuse, and other forms of sexism. Because the work of a democratic government is to run society, this is a problem that concerns us all.

The findings were based on in-depth interviews of 123 women in European parliaments (81 of them MPs) from 45 European countries. More than 85% of the female members of parliament interviewed in the report said that they had suffered “psychological violence” during their time in office. Almost 47% had been threatened with rape, physical violence, or death either at work or online. Over 58% had been targeted for sexist abuse online.

Younger women were more likely to have been harassed. Among staffers, over 40% said they’d suffered sexual harassment at work, with male MPs the perpetrators in almost 70% of those cases.

This problem is not specific to Europe. A 2016 report from the same organization covering the five regions of the world found that daily sexism and gender-based violence were “universal and systemic problems in the world of parliaments.”

It also showed that “sexism, harassment and violence against female MPs had the short- and long- term consequences of hindering women’s access to leadership positions and their full contribution to political processes,” they wrote. “In this respect, the systemic occurrence of these problems in parliaments is prejudicial to democratic institutions and to democracy itself.”

Today’s report also noted that harassment is happening with impunity, because in many cases there were no clear channels through which women could make problems known or seek help. Most of the incidents went unreported: A shockingly tiny 6% of female staff members said they had reported their experience, while 23.5% of MPs had done so.

The #MeToo movement has, the report said, gone some way to highlighting the “precarious” environment in which many female staff and parliamentarians worked. The report’s authors call on governments to put in place clear reporting measures, introduce training, and involve men in finding ways to change the working culture. The stakes of ending sexual harassment could not be higher, as IPU president Gabriela Cuevas said in a statement: “We need to acknowledge the perverse effect that this can have on the freedom of action of women MPs.”