Can you control naming and shaming online?

It’s an unfortunate reality that most women experience casual sexism as an everyday occurrence. A yell from a white van man as she walks to work, or a presumption she will undertake the lion’s share of household chores; women in modern Britain are wearily accustomed to being the subject of preconceived ideas based solely on their gender. Many of us rally against the prejudice, but is the good fight against everyday sexism best served by knee-jerk outrage and a Twitter account?

This week, the media is going to town on the story featuring a female barrister, who received a pretty sleazy and flirty email on professional networking site LinkedIn, from a considerably older, married senior lawyer, who was clearly taken with the counsel half his age.

It’s depressing, but inappropriate flirting and sleaze from men in positions of power in major industries- legal, financial, medical…(we could go on all day), are not news. Throw a stick down the square mile in London and you’ll hit ten of them before you get to Bank. Go to any watering hole in the City after trading closes and you can pretty much guarantee the beery breath of a designer-suited number cruncher will get uncomfortably close to your neck as you try and go about your business of ordering a decent passion fruit martini. So what happened here to send this story of weak sleaze around the world?

When the 57-year old senior lawyer Alexander Carter-Silk accepted the LinkedIn request sent by 27-year-old human rights lawyer Charlotte Proudman he also replied with a LinkedIn message complimenting her on her ‘stunning picture’. An enraged Charlotte hit back with a scathing response, which she shared with the world on her Twitter account.

So what kicked this all off? After writing a private message that he was ‘delighted to connect’ with the young barrister he then stepped over the line and added “I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!!”

“You definitely win the prize for the best Linkedin picture I have ever seen” “Always interest [sic] to understant [sic] people’s skills and how we might work together”.

Charlotte replied with: “I am on linked-in for business purposes not to be approached about my physical appearance or to be objectified by sexist men.

“The eroticisation of women’s physical appearance is a way of exercising power over women. It silences women’s professional attributes as their physical appearance becomes the subject

“Unacceptable and misogynistic behaviour. Think twice before sending another woman (half your age) such a sexist message.”

If his spelling doesn’t make you want to hide under a pile of cushions, his pathetic attempts to flatter the younger woman will. He knew he was stepping over the line but he still went ahead anyway – ignoring the risk that anything put down in writing – and especially on social media – carries the risk of being made public.

I don’t think the question here is whether or not the message was as ‘offensive’ as Charlotte claims or whether it is sexual harassment…it’s much more around whether she achieved the aims she had when she went so very public. When deciding to use social media to air her grievance did she contemplate whether she would be able, within important bounds, to control the way this has developed? I’m not sure she thought that through when she shared what was a private message on an open social network before giving him anytime at all to respond or taking another route to complain?

I have been asked by other lawyers what I would have done if I was representing Carter-Silk, a partner at Brown Rudnick, specialising in…err reputation management…at this point. I would have advised that it wasn’t time to go into hiding but instead make a public statement and say he was sorry for causing offence, his flirting was inappropriate and he was misguided in thinking he was offering a harmless compliment. Carter-Silk instead made a statement claiming he was referring to the high quality of her profile photo, and this explanation is rather hard to swallow given his original message.

Charlotte has received praise from many corners for highlighting the correspondence, but equally, she has been slammed by men AND women for what is perceived as a massive overreaction to a pretty pathetic attempt to flatter her from a man who really ought to know better. Women are right to call out objectification in their professional experience, but this man was not a colleague of hers. While it is not appropriate to make the kind of comments Carter-Silk did, it’s a stretch to deem it sexual harassment and worthy of such public shaming.

Yes, he was leery and creepy, but his message was not lewd or sexually offensive. Charlotte was right to challenge him, it is entirely her right to deem the message offensive, but she took a wrong turn by sharing the message on social media, which feels uncomfortably like a witch-hunt.

Another point – missed by many – was whether they knew each other at all before she sent the LinkedIn request…did both of them break one of the most well-known rules of LinkedIn and connect with someone they didn’t know?

Neither of them have come out of this looking particularly good. And LinkedIn? It’s a fantastic resource for b2b connections- but for anything more biblical, maybe try Tinder.

Oh and I had a few emails yesterday asking why I hadn’t blogged on this already…I replied to say I wanted to take a little time to think about it before I wrote my thoughts and took action. See what I did there?

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