Breaking barriers as a woman in electoral management: “the price I paid for my leadership”
As revealed by International IDEA's recent research, in many countries worldwide, women who serve as electoral officials face numerous challenges in the online space that threaten their mental well-being and physical and online safety. From devaluation of work to being falsely accused of electoral fraud, and from sexual objectification to death threats, these women are massively subjected to gender-based disinformation and a wide range of other profoundly harmful behaviors in the online space.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.
“I was warned ahead of time that I would become the target of these attacks as a woman chair of the electoral body. The expectation was that since I am a woman, I am not strong enough and I’ll decide to resign.”
The issue is rooted in the larger problem of gender inequality in the political and electoral spheres. Previous research by International IDEA shows that only 22 per cent of the electoral management bodies (EMBs) across the world are being led by women. Women are vastly underrepresented in positions of power and are often portrayed as incapable of fulfilling these roles, perpetuating gender stereotypes and biases. This not only limits women's opportunities for leadership in electoral management but also reinforces harmful gender-based practices, including discrimination, harassment and gender-based disinformation campaigns. Such attacks can silence women’s voices and discourage them from meaningfully participating in social and political life.
When women do manage to secure such roles, they are furthermore exposed to disinformation and harassment, which can range from subtle microaggressions in the online space to outright violence. One of the most insidious forms of this violence is disinformation campaigns that are designed to discredit or undermine the legitimacy of women in leadership positions. These campaigns often use false information, rumors and other forms of disinformation to create doubt on the capacity of women in electoral management to deliver free, fair and transparent elections.
Social media platforms and their multiplication algorithms play a central role in the implementation and proliferation of such harmful strategies used by malign actors. However, malign campaigns online and offline mutually potentiate.
The impact of this type of aggression is significant, as it can undermine trust in democratic processes and erode public confidence in the ability of women to lead. It can also lead to a loss of organizational knowledge and competence when women in or considering running for office or taking on leadership roles may be discouraged or intimidated by the prospect of facing this kind of violence. In extreme cases, these online attacks against women in electoral management may lead to non-acceptance of electoral outcomes and electoral violence.
On a personal level, the impact of harmful gender-based practices against women in electoral management can be severe, ranging from reputational damage and curtailing of civil rights to psychological trauma and physical violence. Women in leadership roles are particularly vulnerable to these harms, which can extend to their inner circle, including family members and colleagues.
"The price I paid for my leadership: My children had to receive psychological support to be able to continue going to school. The online attacks against their mother became the object of taunt against them by some colleagues. The magnitude and brutality of the online threats directed towards my family were so terrifying that my husband and children had to relocate. The trauma and fear these threats caused have left a permanent scar on our family."
In some cases, this violence can escalate to physical violence against the officials and even murder, underscoring the urgent need to address this issue and protect women's rights to participate in political and electoral life both online and offline, free from disinformation, discrimination and violence.
Harmful content targeting women in electoral management is often disguised through different techniques, such as malign euphemistic content1, or ephemeral posts2, making it difficult to detect and report. International IDEA survey indicates that most of the victims of disinformation attacks in the online space are electoral officials in high-ranking positions. These attacks, including various forms of online aggression, have increased significantly in recent years, especially those targeting women. Five women electoral officials in 10 declared they were victims of disinformation and/or online aggression and harassment while in their official positions in a survey conducted by International IDEA between February 2022 and February 2023.
However, these attacks frequently go unnoticed by content moderation and fact-checking efforts on social media platforms due to disguise tactics such as the use of malign euphemisms or ephemeral posts, which evade filters.
Disinformation attacks also extend to representatives of international organizations and election observation missions, although to a lesser extent.
In many cases, the disinformation attacks against women in electoral management are initiated or amplified by electoral competitors—mainly men—and online media.
To address the issue of gender-based disinformation and online aggression against women in electoral management, it is crucial that the steps are taken with a context-sensitive and intersectional perspective. This involves recognizing that the problem is complex and multifaceted and requires a nuanced approach that considers the unique challenges women electoral officials face with different, overlapping social identities in the online space.
A critical step towards addressing this issue is for states, political stakeholders, and media to commit to respecting the independence of EMBs and protecting elections and electoral officials in the information environment.
Other equally important measures include:
- implementing policies that promote gender equality and protect women's rights to participate in electoral processes without fear of disinformation, harassment, or discrimination;
- improving online detection and counteracting systems against harmful content;
- implementing regulations against harmful content and conduct online against electoral officials while respecting the right to freedom of expression;
- developing codes of conduct in the information environment around elections, with a particular focus on women in electoral management, for political stakeholders, state actors and media;
- holding perpetrators of gender-based disinformation and aggression accountable for their actions; and
- providing security, legal and psychological support to victims of gender-based disinformation, online aggression and discrimination.
Addressing gender-based disinformation and aggression against women in electoral management requires a comprehensive approach that involves a range of stakeholders and recognizes the intersectional nature of the issue. By taking steps to promote gender equality, improve detection and removal mechanisms, and protect electoral officials and the independence of EMBs, we can create a more just and equitable society where women can fully participate in political and electoral life online and offline without fear of disinformation, discrimination or violence.
The topic is being addressed extensively in the upcoming report on the Challenges for electoral officials in the information environment around elections.