Self-censorship is defined as “the act of refraining from expressing something (such as a thought, point of view, or belief) that others could deem objectionable.” The concept of self-censorship in and of itself is not inherently gendered, and it is something that everyone practices to a degree, whether in a professional or personal capacity, for the sake of peace or politeness. However, in a world where women are so closely and consistently scrutinised, with judgement passed on everything from the clothes they wear, to how much they drink, and what they say, there is certainly a sense that women are under greater societal pressure to self-censor than men.
The social expectations of women encourage submission, compromise, and self-censorship. We are taught that “good girls” don’t talk back, we are taught that being “bossy” is a bad thing, we are taught to hold our tongues because no one likes a “loudmouth.” The impact of this extends beyond our personal lives, colouring the interactions we have in our academic and professional lives. A PWN survey from 2018 recorded that 88% of women have set themselves professional goals, but 77% of those women see voicing such ambitions as taboo, and feel uncomfortable telling others about them. In addition to causing discomfort to women in professional environments, the pressure to self-censor makes the glass ceiling all the more impenetrable, with 54% of women surveyed by Penn Law in January of this year indicating that they would be hesitant to take on leadership roles due to a fear of being criticised or their behaviour being scrutinised. 71% of participants of the same study also noted their reluctance to speak up in meetings in a group setting due to a fear of judgement.
Just as self-censorship in the workplace is damaging, it is also the tool by which women attempt to avoid violence and abuse when engaging with social media. In a study conducted by Amnesty International in 2018, more than 63% of the women polled across 8 countries reported self-censoring online or drastically changing the way they interact with social media platforms as the result of online abuse or harassment. The testimonies provided to Amnesty make for chilling reading: activists are victims of threats of gender-based violence and sexual assault for celebrating Transgender Day of Remembrance, for example, or for participating in the discourse surrounding the restrictive abortion laws in the US. A common theme among these testimonies of women on both sides of the Atlantic is the total exhaustion experienced from the mental gymnastics and the sheer amount of thought put into every tweet and interaction on social media.
The threats levelled at women who express their opinions on the internet are nothing short of shocking, and the reports of women leaving social media entirely come as no surprise. The consequences of women censoring themselves into silence are dire. If we cannot safely open conversations and express our opinions about the issues that affect women all over the world, these issues cannot be tackled and the taboos in place cannot be broken. UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Dubravka Simonoci, commented that “ensuring an internet free from gender-based violence enhances freedom of expression as it allows women to fully participate in all areas of life and is integral to women’s empowerment.” We should be noisy about issues of Transgender Remembrance and abortion because they matter. We should be calling out sexual harassment and blowing the whistle on misogyny because it is important. We should be able to do these things free of societal pressure to conform and be the kind of woman who doesn’t cause problems, and we should certainly be able to do these things free from the threats of violence that have driven women away from social media in their droves.