Opinion

Sexism in the professional environment – where’s the line?

9 min read

13 October 2015

The national news recently highlighted a woman’s complaint against a man on LinkedIn who said she was "stunning". While some thought she was right and others thought she was overreacting, it highlighted why context is important in communication and tells us we need to know what defines "wrong" in the way we treat gender.

Female barrister Charlotte Proudman accused senior solicitor Alexander Carter-Silk of being sexist in compliments he made about her profile photo on LinkedIn – and publicly “outed” his comment on Twitter. The spark lit a bonfire of opinions that spread virally.

The media storm that ensued erupted onto major news channels. What is interesting – is that much of the media made a case against Proudman rather than focus on the debate or his comments. Does this tell us something about how we believe women should complain or according to some – why women should not?

Whilst many have endured the irritation of unwanted or inappropriate advances on social media, it’s rare these days that the offence has been reported, exposed or held up unless it’s overtly malicious. The problem is that unwanted comments on your physical appearance set a precedent in inter-personal communication, and many women in business find that uncomfortable and disempowering – as Proudman demonstrated. 

The stunning misjudgement

So what was his remark? “Charlotte, delighted to connect, I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!! You definitely win the prize for the best linked in picture I have ever seen. Always interest (sic) to understand (sic) people’s skills and how we might work together, Alex.”

Proudman’s now famous response was: “I find your message offensive… I am on LinkedIn for business purposes – not to be approached about my physical appearance or to be objectified by sexist men! The eroticisation of women’s professional attributes 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. Charlotte.”

On reading it – it seems on the surface like an extreme reaction but it is also a fair point she makes about context. Commenting on a photo of a stranger on LinkedIn is ill advised. The difference between LinkedIn and other social media like Twitter or Facebook is precisely that it is there as a medium for business connections – it’s therefore a unique online social media more attuned to office etiquette than any other social platform. 

Read more about gender discrimination:

You may think for someone in the legal profession Carter-Silk should have known better. However, he made his comment and as we all now know, it was not well received. It may well have been completely innocent but that’s not really the point. People on a business network should really keep comments in context of the media so these sorts of incidents don’t flare up.

A lot of people would probably argue this whole story has spiralled out of control but it is a very interesting situation to observe as it has drawn out strong opinions by a wide range of people – some who appear genuinely outraged about her reply to the point of properly insulting Proudman by calling her names. If anything, Proudman has inadvertently revealed a seething proportion of people – some who are unashamedly sexist, who make Carter-Silk look like Mother Theresa. 

Trial by media of this incident has repeatedly drawn out the fact that Portman has “ogled” over images of men on her other social media accounts and that Carter-Silk even called his daughter “hot” affectionately. One thing is for certain – as a woman you will need to have thick skin if you publicly complain about people commenting on your appearance. Is this fair? That’s the real question in all of this.

Let’s explore the legal framework around gender related rights in this often difficult to define area. Does the law have guidelines on what people can and can’t say to other colleagues about what they look like?

War of words

Law is constantly see-sawing between the rights of free speech and offensive opinion made public. If someone attacks you in words – not by complimenting you as in the Proudman case – then you may have grounds for defamation. Defamation can be libel or slander. Libel is when damages to an individual’s reputation occur through a permanent media – say through a newspaper feature. Slander is the same sort of offense but in a temporary form – such as a verbal exchange (harder to fight this). This is of course not limited to gender bashing issues. 

Sexual discrimination law

Let’s start by saying the premise of this law is not restricted to women. Sexual discrimination affects both genders and also transgender individuals. It hinges on unfair treatment or hatred directed toward an individual on the grounds of their gender alone. If you find yourself facing a problem with sexual discrimination there are organisations out there that can help. For instance, there is The Equality and Human Rights Commission.

There are two specific laws that are in force regarding Sexual Discrimination. These are The Sex Discrimination Act and The Equal Pay Act.

The Sexual Discrimination Act protects people from being discriminated against in their employment, training or education due to their gender. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 is there to protect equal pay regardless of gender.

Whilst a comment on LinkedIn such as Carter-Silk’s will simply be a footnote in the history of how people should interact professionally there are very serious cases of sexual discrimination that affect individuals daily, crushing their confidence, suppressing their career advancements and worse – cases that lead to sexual assault. 

We do unfortunately live in an age where sexual discrimination and sexism still flourishes in environments where it is not challenged so there are times when fighting the good fight is worth it. Perhaps Proudman’s sensitivity and apparent anger at those infamous remarks is partly due to her involvement in the legal sector – which she implies is rife with sexism. She also knows a thing or two about the way people manipulate women – as her specialist area of law is related to violence against women and girls.

Whatever side of the fence you may sit on regarding the Proudman vs Carter-Silk debate, the lesson here is that it is always worth being mindful about the way you talk to and treat colleagues of different genders. A polite, professional attitude goes a long way in mixed company. Whether a comment is charming or slimy can be in the eye of the beholder so it’s worth thinking about that in work environments, online or in office.

Concerned with issues surrounding gender diversity in business? Don’t miss the Real Business First Women programme:

Drawing on years of the First Women movement and the phenomenal network of pioneering women the Awards has created, this programme features The First Women Awards and The First Women Summit  designed to educate, mentor and inspire women in all levels of business.

Richard Forsyth is PR manager at Varn Media.