Online abuse putting young women off political careers, female ex-tánaistí say

Frances Fitzgerald recently had to go to gardaí over threat to sons while sexism still a day-to-day reality

A mix of online abuse and misinformation is deterring young women from entering politics, an event hosted by employers’ group Ibec in advance of International Women’s Day has heard.

Ireland’s four female former tánaistí – Mary Harney, Mary Coughlan, Frances Fitzgerald and Joan Burton – told the gathering,they all had to live with day-to-day sexism during their time in politics, but agreed that social media had made it a tougher career for the generations coming behind them.

“I get a lot of lies told about me and had to go to the gardaí recently about a sort of threat to my sons,” said Ms Fitzgerald, who is not seeking to retain her European Parliament seat in June’s election.

She said the phenomenon of threatening behaviour by men towards female politicians is not entirely new and recalled an occasion when she was also forced to go to An Garda Síochána after a face-to-face encounter with a man at the Dáil many years ago.


“I was quite nervous after it for a while, I was left looking around me on the way home, that sort of thing. But I think it’s more targeted and vicious towards with the current female politicians,” she said.

The Fine Gael MEP said she hoped a European Directive on violence against women, which she has been active in promoting and will require legislation in member states on a range of online abuse and threatening behaviours, will have a positive effect. However, she said she believes political parties need to do more to counter that abuse and misinformation, particularly in the run-up to elections.

All four former tánaistí suggested they had to deal with day-to-day sexism during their political careers, with journalists, some of them women, the culprits at times.

“Everyday sexism, even in the media, is still around and about,” said Ms Fitzgerald. “The lens through which politics is seen is still quite male and the evaluation is quite male.”

Ms Harney suggested that the abuse delivered through social media “is going to have a detrimental effect on our democracy”.

“I think political life is harder now than it was when we were there,” she said. “And notwithstanding all of the improvements there have been generally, particularly for women, social media is having a terrible impact. I spoke to two female TDs recently and the stuff they told me that’s on social media ... it’s just horrendous.

“It seems people feel free to say anything about anyone and the social media companies are very slow to react. The answer is regulation and we need people not to be allowed to be anonymous online.”

Ms Burton said the personal support provided by other female politicians had been important to her during a period when, as a minister, she was a regular recipient of abuse.

Ms Fitzgerald said being a cabinet member became very different, in her experience, as the number of women increased significantly.

“The tone changed, it wasn’t just all the lads together,” she said.

Greater gender balance and broader representation had a tangible impact, she said, and would benefit democracy. But online abuse is a significant hurdle to continued progress, she added.

Ms Fitzgerald said she remains positive about politics as a career for women overall, but that “we have a long way to go”.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times