Lessons from the LinkedIn ‘sexism’ affair

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Those who connect on LinkedIn in the UK alone are in good company – with over 17 million British members, it is the best route to enhancing one’s professional network. Yet one professional fell foul of it in a very big way recently, and ended up as front-page news (admittedly on a slow news day).

For those who have been on holiday, the outline of the story is as follows:

Barrister Charlotte Rachael Proudman, as she styles herself on her page, is on sabbatical from her practice and is studying at Cambridge University. She approached solicitor Alexander Carter-Silk to connect with him on LinkedIn. He is a senior partner at Brown Rudnick. It has not been disclosed why Ms. Proudman wanted to link with him or whether he was the only lawyer that she targeted, but he was clearly charmed by her profile photo, which he ill-advisedly said was ‘stunning’ and ‘won the prize’ as the best picture he had ever seen.

She objected strongly to being ‘objectified’ and said it wasn’t the first time she had received comments on her appearance. She likened these to what you might find on dating site Tinder, not LinkedIn.

Carter-Silk, 30 years her senior, did preface his comments by saying they were ‘probably horrendously politically incorrect’.  Proudman admonished him for ‘unacceptable and misogynistic behaviour’. She commented on being ‘objectified by sexist men’. But what elevated this into a news story was that she did not settle for a one-to-one shaming of the solicitor: she upped the stakes by posting the correspondence on Twitter, where the media picked up on it. For the latest on the affair, see this Daily Mail Online piece (from a site which is not stranger to criticisms of its portrayal of women…)

Her follow-up actions also included:

  1. A complaint to his firm
  2. A referral to the Solicitors Regulation Authority
  3. A report to the police about the trolling that she endured from some quarters on Twitter

Charlotte Proudman says she tweeted to name and shame him and told the BBC that she had received ‘tremendous, overwhelming support’ from women about ‘rampant sexism’.  Alexander Carter-Silk’s firm commented that it had ‘promptly and sincerely apologised’ to her.

There have been some comments from male lawyers that it was unprofessional to publicise a private correspondence, and pointing out that she instigated the conversation (I believe with someone she did not previously know).

Linkedin

Charlotte Proudman in legal garb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recruiting Times, in reporting on this incident, reminds us that firms should have a Social Media

Policy to ensure that employees act appropriately.

Wearing my LinkedIn trainer’s hat, I must tell both the individuals to learn to spell the network’s name correctly: and I felt it incumbent upon me to visit their profiles. They are both keen networkers, with over 500 connections each, and both studied law at Keele University, albeit in different decades. Both also used to publish articles but have become inactive of late, which I would chide them for if they came to my class.

Was Carter-Silk at fault? – surely yes. However his professional record seems exemplary and it includes acting on behalf of Elle Macpherson in the press phone hacking case, which shows him fighting the cause of a leading professional woman. He also lists three women among his six named ‘influencers’. Not an obvious misogynist: possibly a misguided person of 57 who needs help to get his social media etiquette right. He has now been ‘outed’ further, for describing his daughter online as ‘hot’: but one female former colleague said “I never thought of him as a lech. He was bubbly and lively but I never heard any gossip about him. He was a devoted family man. He will have been horrified at the outcry”.

On checking Charlotte Proudman’s Twitter feed, I see that she is devoting a lot of time to this. On just one day, 17 September, she retweeted 25 comments by others that referred to her campaign, which is what it has become. She clearly wants to pursue the cause, which mirrors her admirable pro bono legal work on behalf of vulnerable women and children in the developing world. She has appeared again on the BBC to demand a public apology from Mr. Carter-Silk (she has rejected his personal apology to her).

Whether this story has legs and will continue is not yet clear – but I do think it carries lessons for all of us who use social networks.

I will not put my hand in the hornet’s nest by taking sides in this matter – but I will say that it reminds us (or should do) that one needs to be sensitive to others’ feelings when linking online. It is seductive to believe that you know someone because they have contacted you: the fact is that you don’t really know them at all and you cannot engage in even mildly sexual banter because it can easily give rise to misunderstandings and offence.

My firm, Hannon Digital, teaches individuals and groups how to behave on LinkedIn and Twitter, both as managers and as firms. Note that this includes solicitor practices and barristers’ chambers…