THE BLOG

Women: Doing Better, Despite Social Media Venom

08/09/2014 14:52 BST | Updated 05/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Three stories about women this week: A global consultancy promotes a record number to its top rank, the BBC will probably be run by one for the first time, and a researcher hides after online death threats for criticising the depiction of her gender in video games.

The three ably illustrate where we are in the diversity battle, with triumphant progress matched by an unpleasant reminder of a disturbing gap between actuality and attitudes.

It is, of course, very welcome that KPMG has made one-third of its 52 new partners women, and in doing so sent a powerful message to UK business. The move also put paid to the argument, which is often put forward by 'evolution not revolution' advocates, that gender discrimination means promoting mediocre candidates in order to fill quotas.

What KPMG did was maintain standards but widen the pool of potential candidates for partner both within and outside the firm. Simple, effective and good practice anyway. KPMG, however, still has a way to go as overall women still only account for 17% of the partners.

The truth is that we are still nowhere near seeing women achieving their potential in business, and must not be sedated by the gentle flow of stories about this or that company promoting some to a top job. There is still unconscious bias and an absence of enough role models, not to mention a world of anonymised venom.

Still, the other encouraging news was that Rona Fairhead, the formidably competent City executive, looks likely to head up the BBC Trust. Yet the Daily Telegraph still found the patriarchal headline 'Mother of three poised to lead the BBC." It is hard to recall Lord Patten (father of three) being defined by his fertility.

But eye-rolling gender slights are the least of the problems. The shocking story of the week concerns the American critic Anita Sarkeesian who, it is reported, has been forced into hiding after threats against her. She dared to examine the depiction of women in video games from a feminist viewpoint via a series of YouTube videos.

How long are we going to tolerate this modern version of medieval mob rule? The problem is that social media and the forums it incubates allow people to reveal their unedited selves anonymously. The results are often not very pleasant.

It is striking that most of the breathtaking abuse delivered over the internet against women seems to be from men; and whilst it is admirable that distinguished Cambridge classicist Mary Beard has taken to confronting her 'trolls' with kindness, we need to have a different debate about manners and morals and anonymity

A start would be to understand and influence the people who curate the sites where opinions gather, in much the same way as we understand and influence what guides broadcasters.

It is time to stop treating the internet as a world of free spirits, somehow unanchored to the mores of society, just because those who work within it wear t-shirts to work.

Some will argue that laws already exist to protect people from the worst excesses. But it is little consolation to someone enduring intimidation that some time down the road law enforcement may, or not, catch up with the perpetrator of the abuse.

The biggest challenge facing social media is not its development, but its manners.