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Charlotte Proudman, LinkedIn and Sexism in the Workplace

September 18, 2015

Communications 1

I’ve been following the hullabaloo surrounding barrister Charlotte Proudman, who tweeted an exchange between her and a solicitor of advancing years, Alexander Carter-Silk, in which the latter complimented her on her LinkedIn picture. In reply she accused him of sexism, pressed the button on Twitter, and the inevitable pandemonium duly broke loose.

Accusations of being a “feminazi” (a term I hadn’t heard before), trolls trolling, women leaping to her defence, all stoked up by The Guardian, which published her thoughts on the saga in its blog, and a comment piece by Barbara Ellen congratulating the barrister for her brave stand against lecherous seniors, and asserting that Mr Carter-Silk “is not a cheeky chappie – he’s a sexist chancer”. Cue three hundred-or-so comments ranging from considered to rabid, including some that didn’t make the moderator’s cut, presumably because they were too rabid for the eyes of the sensitive Guardian reader.

Before my head hit the keyboard in blissful slumber, it occurred to me that there were two winners in the debate, and neither of them are Ms Proudman and Mr Carter-Silk. The first is LinkedIn, whose users seem to have emphatically endorsed the company’s branding as a site for professionals rather than exhibitionist job-hunters. And the second is Facebook, founded by a guy at Harvard who gleefully launched the site all those years ago to allow his buddies to rate the “hottest” girls in his year. Apparently it’s still a place where you can be gleefully exhibitionist, and “objectify” members of the opposite sex with impunity. In other words it’s OK to be sexist on Facebook, but not on LinkedIn. I suppose a third winner is Twitter, with its eager trolls finding another target, but this is familiar territory for them.

As for the subjects of the brouhaha, it’s hard to say how either will come out of this. But the chances are that Ms Proudman will get through her stormy fifteen minutes of fame and resume her career unscathed. Mr Carter-Silk, as a senior partner in a London law firm, will probably continue to prosper, buoyed up by quietly supportive colleagues. If his career tails off from here it’s unlikely he will starve. Hopefully he has plenty of years left to pursue other interests.

Coming on to the issues that provoked the frenzy, I thought of writing to Charlotte Proudman, but changed my mind because after being bombarded with opinion and abuse from all quarters, the last thing she will want to read is what she might view as patronising words from an ageing windbag. But patronising or otherwise, here’s what I would have said:

Dear Ms Proudman

I write as someone who is close in age to the person you rebuked so eloquently. Though I’m not a lawyer, I’ve dealt with members of your profession – both male and female – throughout my career. I have employed many women. In one company I co-founded, the majority of staff were women, and that included the senior management team. In another in which I have a substantial interest, the majority shareholder is a woman. I appreciate and admire the contribution of the women I’ve worked with, and my professional life would have been the poorer without them.

I have never written an email similar to the one that Mr Carter-Silk sent you. But forgive me if I suggest another way of looking at him – as a dinosaur grazing on the prehistoric plains. Yes, you’re right to point out that he shouldn’t have complimented you on your appearance. He also shouldn’t have explained his message away by suggesting that he was enraptured by the quality of the photo. But based on the evidence, I don’t see a big bad wolf  behind that email. Patronising perhaps, but not evil. If he was a sexual predator, he surely would have used more subtle methods.

As a LinkedIn user, you will know that if you accept a connection, you are immediately sent to pages of photos. These are of people the software thinks might also be appropriate connections. Many of those photos are of a similar quality to yours. In those terms, with respect, your picture is nothing special to anyone other than you. While yours is a professional shot, many of the images are awful – passport photos or cropped holiday snaps. But there are just as many images of women of a similar age to you, smiling, smartly dressed, not just headshots. Looking at their pictures I might think “wow, that’s a beautiful woman”. Would I send them an email telling them that? Not in a million years. Firstly because I have no job to offer them or business to discuss. And secondly because I realise that a “glamorous” photo is not an invitation to me and millions of other men to try to seduce them, stalk them or otherwise “objectify” them, as you put it.

But here’s the thing. Do you think those women posted what they thought was the most attractive available images of themselves if they didn’t think they would gain an advantage – in terms of employment prospects or business opportunities – by doing so? To suggest otherwise, I believe, would be naïve.

The advantage might be huge, in the case of a male decision-maker who is influenced by the physical appearance of a salesperson or prospective employee, or marginal, in the case of an employer that uses more objective measures of employability. But given the choice between a smiling, well-dressed woman, and a grim-faced, scruffy individual – man or woman – in a low-resolution shot, the former will usually have an advantage when knocking on the door. After all, even in this age of relative informality at work, Apple’s executives may wear jeans and casual shirts, but they’re still well scrubbed up.

Your rebuke to Alexander Carter-Silk may well, as you hope, cause people like him in your profession to think twice before indulging in inappropriate flattery towards strangers. But have you really struck a blow against sexism in the legal profession or in the wider workplace? I think not.

Slapping down one man will not stop other men from lusting after women in the workplace (or women from lusting after men for that matter), from joking about it with their mates, and, worst of all, from making decisions based on physical appearance rather than competence. Such men will just cover their tracks more effectively. And these days – even in banking – most of them do take more care, for fear of ending up in front your colleagues at the bar. But the gender dynamic will remain. And my experience tells me that many women in the workplace know this and actively exploit the sexism of their male colleagues to their advantage. Perhaps not to the extent of enduring the casting couch, but manipulation is not an exclusively male art.

I’m aware that, as the Guardian puts it, you are a lawyer “who specialises in violence against women and girls” (though if I was the journalist who wrote that piece I wouldn’t have quite put it that way). So I want to be clear that I don’t subscribe to the “appearance is an invitation to rape” school of thought. I’m simply pointing out that appearance is a weapon of influence. Not always, but surely often.

Likewise I don’t believe that posting a controversial tweet is “asking for it”, though if you’re a regular Twitter user you will surely not be surprised that you’ve attracted the attention of the knuckleheads. If you are surprised, I suggest you read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. However, you don’t deserve a torrent of ad hominem abuse for expressing your opinion.

But was that tweet really worth posting? I just think that your public shaming of Mr Carter-Silk doesn’t really advance the cause of equality and the reduction of sexism in the workplace very far. Sexism and misogyny in the workplace, whether overt or overt, aren’t going to go away any time soon. What’s more I would argue that our country has come further than most in creating a level playing field, excepting possibly the Nordic nations. Not there yet, but definitely getting there.

To put the last observation into perspective, I write this as someone who has spent much time in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, a country in which, its critics would argue, misogyny is institutional. I probably don’t need to point out what many Saudis might say about the “objectification” of your physical appearance.

I’m sure you are not wrong in your perception that sexism in the workplace is still pretty widespread, though as I implied earlier, I think you were a little harsh on Mr Carter-Silk in describing him as a “sexist man”. You can describe his behaviour as sexist, but do you know him well enough to use that epithet to describe the person? I also think that you are over-egging his potential power and influence over your career. After all, you work in Mike Mansfield’s chambers, and there are few more influential people in the British legal profession than Mr Mansfield.

More importantly, I do believe that in your chosen specialisation you can make a far deeper impact than that achieved by outing a dinosaur of a solicitor. After all, as you of all people will know, you can be an advocate for millions of women who live under far more oppressive conditions than you or any of your female colleagues have encountered in the legal profession. In your work you will probably have come across Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy, Sex and the Citadel by Shireen El Feki, the books of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other writers arguing for an end to extreme misogyny in some societies. It’s not just women who read these books and take on board the messages they deliver. Men, including me, read them too. After all, misogyny is not just a gender issue. It’s human issue.

I’m sure you’re strong enough to ignore the trolls and get on with your life. You’ve made a mark in a way which you probably didn’t expect. I hope you will now kick on and help to solve the big problems, because God knows there are plenty of them. You’re young enough to make a difference, whereas people like me and Alexander Carter-Silk have only our declining years to look forward to, doubtless entertained from time to time by images on LinkedIn.

Oh, and if I can offer one more suggestion: based on my experience, emails written in anger, beyond providing an initial rush of righteous satisfaction, rarely deliver positive outcomes. Just more anger.

I wish you success in the rest of your career.

Yours with the greatest respect


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