Outrage over ‘sexist’ LinkedIn message

Legal battle: A barrister has accused a senior lawyer of ‘misogyny’ online © Charlotte Proudman

A vicious debate is in full flow after a senior lawyer called his female colleague ‘stunning’ online. There have been accusations on all sides. What is the problem?

When award-winning human rights barrister Charlotte Proudman came home from work this week, she logged into the social network for professionals, LinkedIn. There, she found a surprising message from Alexander Carter-Silk, a senior partner of a law firm to whom she had sent a connection request. ‘I appreciate this is probably horrendously politically incorrect,’ he wrote, ‘but that is a stunning picture’. He went on to say that it won the prize for the best profile he had ‘ever seen’ on the site, and offered to work with her in future.

Ms Proudman replied explaining that she found the message offensive and that she was not on the website to be ‘objectified by sexist men’. Focusing on women’s appearances, she told him, silences their ‘professional attributes’. She concluded that the message was ‘unacceptable and misogynist’ and asked him to think twice before sending something similar again.

But that was not the end of the matter — she took a screenshot of the conversation, and posted it to Twitter. Her decision sparked a furious reaction.

Many came forward with similar stories, and praised Ms Proudman for standing up for herself. Others accused her of overreacting, and defended the ‘compliment’ by Mr Carter-Silk. The head of one legal aid firm tweeted to say he would no longer brief her on cases. ‘How can you be trusted?’ he asked.

‘I think it’s important that we collectively call out this sexism,’ she responded, pointing out that the legal profession exists partly to uphold anti-harassment laws. It was not an isolated incident, after all; a recent report by the Bar Council found the legal profession to be ‘rife with prejudice against women’.

Mr Carter-Silk, who is married with a daughter Ms Proudman’s age, apologised for any offence caused. He said that he was complimenting the ‘professional presentation’ of her page, and had been ‘misinterpreted’.

Faint praise

Some have accused Ms Proudman of blowing the incident out of proportion. Journalist Sarah Vine, who is married to the justice secretary Michael Gove, wrote that she should ‘grow up’ and accept the ‘simple, straightforward compliment’. If people can’t make a harmless comment without fear of public shaming, then something has gone badly wrong in society.

But others think that the problem is a climate in which men comment on women’s appearances in a professional space. It undermines women’s position, and implies that their looks are more important than their achievements — something which doesn’t happen to men. ‘My partner gets messages asking if he wants a job at hedge funds,’ Ms Proudman said. ‘I get propositions from men asking me out.’

You Decide

  1. Do you think Mr Carter-Silk’s message was sexist?
  2. Given that men have historically had all the power, can women be sexist?

Activities

  1. Write your definition of sexism in under 30 words.
  2. Imagine your classroom is a courtroom and put Alexander Carter-Silk on trial for his message and ask the class to act as jury. Guilty or not guilty?

Some People Say...

“Looks don’t matter.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this just a generation thing?
Alexander Carter-Silk, who is 57, was certainly raised in a more openly sexist time. But the 21st century has its own problems. Photoshopping and plastic surgery can create unrealistic expectations for women, and the internet makes it far easier to attack them anonymously. Things have changed, but they are still not easy.
Isn’t the reaction a bit over the top?
Perhaps, but plenty of women got in touch with Charlotte to share similar stories. It may seem like a trivial incident to some, but it is worth considering if women feel they are not being taken seriously because of their looks, when men rarely receive the same treatment. Charlotte’s argument for sharing the message in public was that it would raise awareness of an issue that is considered ‘normal’.

Word Watch

Barrister
Lawyers who represent individuals or organisations in court, pleading the case on their behalf. Ms Proudman also describes herself as a ‘feminist legal activist’ and has specialised in cases involving violence against women.
LinkedIn
A professional social network which says it has more than 300 million members in over 200 countries.
Anti-harassment
In England and Wales, the Protection from Harassment Act protects people from any behaviour which makes someone feel ‘distressed, humiliated or threatened’. It specifies that you must have experienced two incidents. As this case proves, the definition of ‘harassment’ can be disputed, and the courts must decide whether a ‘reasonable person’ would agree.
Bar Council
The ‘Bar’ is another word for the legal profession, named after a railing in the courtroom which separates the general public from those involved in the court. In the UK, the Bar Council represents barristers in England and Wales.

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