Last week I took to Twitter to express my surprise at the use of the term, ‘Head of the Household’, by British Airways. I was attempting to update details on my British Airways account and received an error message explaining that only the ‘Head of the Household’ could do so, in this case, my male partner. BA’s Twitter team responded to my tweets, insisting that the term was gender neutral, and that either I or my partner could be the designated ‘Head of the Household’. They did not engage with my suggestion that ‘Lead Account Holder’ would be a more appropriate term, and insisted that equal status could not be granted to account holders.
My direct tweets to British Airways were picked up by a news agency journalist. I agreed to discuss it with her. Like me, she was perplexed by BA’s use of the term, and expressed a genuine commitment to tackling issues of gender inequality. Our call lasted about ten minutes. The journalist was attentive and produced a story that accurately reflected a number of the comments I had made.
The story was published by several UK papers online, first, the Daily Mail, and then others, including The Times and Cosmopolitan. It was interesting to see how the piece originally written by the agency journalist was altered for publication in other outlets. One, for example, described my direct but measured tweets and my brief, nuanced interview with the journalist as me having ‘hit the roof’. All published my age.
This led to a revealing foray into the world of the ‘below the line’ comments and social media reaction. Some of my research on the CIA’s rendition and torture programme has been discussed in the media before, and I have received some ‘below the line’ criticism: I’ve been labelled a terrorist sympathiser; my academic credentials have been challenged; it has been suggested my work threatens UK security; and of course, I’ve been labelled ‘biased’. But I have not previously been exposed to the sexist and in some cases sexualised responses that the BA story unleashed.
Wise academic friends counselled me not to read the ‘below the line’ comments, as did the journalist. I did though, to test whether my assumptions about the nature of those comments were correct. They were. While some were critical of BA, the vast majority fell into the following, all-too-predictable categories: 1) those who sided with BA, asserting that the term ‘Head of the Household’ is gender neutral; 2) those who said that of course the man is Head of the Household and that I should get back to the kitchen; 3) those who said I am over-privileged and have no grasp of real world issues, even though my comments quoted in the article were explicit on this point; 4) those that we could call ‘race to the bottom’ comments, suggesting I should be sent to Saudi Arabia where women are really oppressed; 5) those that questioned my professional credentials, suggested I was a threat to students, and attacked my university and universities generally; and 6) the sexually explicit ones. Ironically, many of them also served to reinforce my broader point that we still have work to do on gender equality. A number of people also took to twitter to directly address me along similar lines.
This was by no means the worst case of trolling. Women MPs and female columnists are relentlessly subjected to this. Frequently the trolling involves rape and death threats. The experience did, however, remind me why so many of my academic colleagues, especially but not only women, do not want to engage with the media. Unfortunately though, this has the effect of women experts being very poorly represented, even where they have plenty of insight to offer.
As I indicated in my comments for the article, gendered language and stereotypes are part of a broader spectrum of inequality. Of course they are not as serious as violence against women, or the crushing effects of extreme poverty. But this does not mean they should go unchallenged, not least because they reinforce the effects of other, more direct gender inequities. President Trump was elected in the US despite openly sexist comments and allegations of sexual assault. The gender pay gap persists in Britain, currently standing at 13.9% for fulltime workers, according to the Fawcett Society. The upcoming general election is likely to result in significant drops in the proportion of female MPs. Women are not being elected to the new mayoral positions in UK regions. Women, especially poor women and women of colour, have been disproportionately impacted by the current government’s austerity measures. Recent reports have shown that girls are missing school because their families can no longer afford sanitary protection. Gender-based violence is at epidemic levels, with two women murdered every week in the UK, and research shows that it escalates during economic downturns. Of course, where women are victims of domestic violence, perpetrators are emboldened by their assumed right to have power over and control of their partners.
The term, ‘Head of the Household’, has biblical roots. One Twitter respondent did indeed remind me that man’s position as head of the household is God-given: ‘@ruthblakeley the husband is Head of household and if the husband dies then the eldest son. God created man 1st then woman as his helpmete [sic]’. (Interestingly, Cosmopolitan published this tweet before describing BA’s response that the term is gender neutral). Apostle Paul, in his letters to the Ephesians and Corinthians, instructed that women should submit to their husbands in everything, since the husband is head of the wife, as Christ is head of the church (Ephesians 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 11:3). Biblical teaching for centuries shaped British social norms, and even today, some Christian denominations continue to uphold Paul’s teachings on sexual relations, as the quoted tweet indicates.
We clearly still have a long way to go, and calling out unhelpful language and stereotypes is just one aspect of the struggles we face. While engaging with the ‘below the line’ comments was unpleasant, several positives have come out of this experience. First, friends and strangers alike took to Twitter or emailed me directly to express their support for my position. Second, I came across other feminists on Twitter who have been truly courageous in their work, and feisty and humorous in their responses to the trolls. One has the twitter handle statement, ‘Ridicule is nothing to be scared of’. I have been inspired by their courage, and made new friends. Third, it has prompted some creative thinking and discussion on ways forward.
There are very friendly fora for academics to engage the wider public, including The Conversation and Monkey Cage. Media organisations are waking up to the need to engage more women experts, as Sophie Harman reported here recently. Some papers are also taking seriously the violence and misogyny directed at their columnists. I have had very positive experiences of working with journalists from some of these outlets in the past and have built trusting relationships with them. They would be my first port of call if I wanted to engage through the media about my research. But I also think we have to take seriously the need to engage beyond our usual circles. Recent commentary suggests that Brexit has exposed deepening divisions in British society. If we only engage with those who already think as we do, we reinforce those divisions. That does not mean we have to be accepting of online abuse. But I think we do have to understand what is driving it, and we can only do that through engagement and analysis.
‘Below the line comments’ and online trolling are ripe for research. I can envisage research projects which analyse online comments across several papers. We could explore how expert knowledge is treated, and whether the gender of the expert affects the nature of the comments. We could look at the treatment of MPs on a range of characteristics including gender, race, age, sexuality, as well as political party. We could categorise the comments as I have done, to determine trends in how ‘below the liners’ engage on a range of issues, and how they respond to different groups of people. The findings could be used to engage the media on the impact that particular representations of issues or people has on public opinion as expressed ‘below the line’. What if we could develop online, real-time tools that track and analyse the ‘below the line’ comments and social media responses, and could mirror these back to readers? This would serve as a real antidote to those who are dismissive of our claims that there is a lot of sexism and misogyny out there. The technologies are there to do this. Harnessing our skills, creativity and contacts to take this forward is the next step.