A 27-year-old Cambridge-educated female barrister receives a LinkedIn message from a man 30 years her senior, telling her that her profile picture is “stunning.”
She is offended by what she sees as his sexual objectification of her. She then screenshots the exchange and tweets it for all to see.
Charlotte Proudman has become a household name in the U.K. after she posted a LinkedIn exchange with Alex Carter-Silk, a 57-year-old senior partner in a major law firm, on Twitter on Tuesday.
In the message, Carter-Silk wrote to Proudman: “I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture !! You definitely win the prize for best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen.”
Proudman replied to him: “Alex, 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 eroticization 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 behavior. Think twice before sending another woman (half your age) such a sexist message.”
Proudman screen-shot the exchange, and captioned her subsequent tweet with “How many women @LinkedIn are contacted re physical appearance rather than prof skills?”
Proudman has since protected her tweets, which is unsurprising when one considers the backlash she is in the midst of receiving.
For some, Proudman is a feminist champion for speaking out against professional harassment and exposing the office threats facing young women in 2015. To others, she’s a “feminazi” who recklessly destroyed a man’s career.
The case rankles because it is thorny and jagged, uneasy to place into a box where Proudman is all right or Carter-Silk is all wrong.
The brouhaha became even murkier on Thursday when it was revealed that in a Facebook post last year Carter-Silk had captioned a picture of his daughter, fitness trainer Ellie, working out: “‘Whilst I should not encourage lascivious comments about my daughter… Yeee gods she is hot!!'”
The Mail later revealed that Proudman herself had commented on men’s looks on social media, judging one to be “hot stuff”; another earned an “ooo-lalala”—and other women were also complimented for their looks.
As the day wore on, more outrage seemed to be reserved for Proudman, rather than Carter-Silk. She was told on social media that her career was over, but she does not regret publicly shaming Carter-Silk.
Proudman told the Evening Standard: “There is a public interest that outweighs privacy. He should have thought about his actions before sending a sexist message to a 27-year-old barrister.
“It was a message sent to me and I have a right to expose it. If these people aren’t made to feel repercussions for actions, which are wrong, then their behavior won’t change and the culture will remain incredibly sexist.”
Of course, ever the subtle and unbiased news source, Breitbart’s story on the controversy is headlined: “I Am Not A Man-Hating Feminazi’ Claims (Alleged) Man-Hating Feminazi Charlotte Proudman.”
Perhaps the debate is so clamorous because it presses a number of sensitive social buttons: sexual objectification, feminism, a gender and generational divide, professional etiquette, privacy, and shaming. On one side are those who think Carter-Silk’s remark was harmless, indeed a light compliment; on the other are those who think it was inappropriate.
Then there are those who are less extreme in their critiques of Proudman, but still lament “when did it become wrong to give a lady a compliment?”
Charlotte Gill wrote for Spiked!, a U.K.-based libertarian publication, that Proudman, “like so many offence-seeking modern feminists, she seems to walk around looking for evidence to support her belief that the world is sexist and out to get her.”
This line of critique is also deeply misguided. At its core is a victim-blaming mindset, but it also completely misses the point that compliments based on physical appearance given by a stranger in a professional setting should be off-limits.
Proudman’s response was not a result of some hard-heartened, humorless feminist inability to “take a compliment,” but a desire to be respected for her intelligence and impressive resumé when communicating with someone in specifically professional forum.
Yet, the LinkedIn exchange between Proudman and Carter-Silk also challenges simple conceptions of sexual harassment.
Of course, Carter-Silk’s comment were inappropriate for any professional communication. He’s a 57-year-old attorney who has been practicing for decades. He of all people should know better and to know that his remarks could land him in hot water.
However, it is hard to fully endorse Proudman’s response.
As someone who has been told by men that I should change my LinkedIn picture because it “doesn’t even look like you. You are very pretty in real life!,” I relate to Proudman’s frustration.
Yet her move to publicly shame Carter-Silk was inappropriate and, in the long run, damaging for her and other women.
Because the other element of this fracas is the questions it raises about our entitlement to privacy in an age where internet shaming has becoming almost the norm.
In following the chain of events, I supported Proudman until she tweeted out the exchange with Carter-Silk. Her response to him that his behavior was “unacceptable and misogynistic” was eloquent and hit the nail on the head.
The BBC reported that Proudman also contacted his employer, Brown Rudnick, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. These were all the right moves to ensure that Carter-Silk would be reprimanded.
But taking a screenshot and sharing Carter-Silk’s comments with all the internet to judge and skewer not only him, but his family, is a step too far.
At best, Proudman appears oblivious to the ramifications it will have on Carter-Silk’s family, including his wife and daughter.
At worst, Proudman’s response seems disproportionately malicious for a message that was inappropriate, but not sexually graphic—nor made to an actual colleague or employee.
Does the “public interest” really “outweigh privacy,” as she argued in her defense?
Surely, we can still combat sexual harassment in the workplace and fight against the objectification of women (and men, for that matter) without considering Carter-Silk’s comments to be on a shameful par as sex offenders or abusers so grave that they and their families lose their privacy.
Proudman may feel she is an avenger with righteousness on her side, but her extreme public shaming of Carter-Silk may simply lead to more polarizing debate.
It doesn’t exactly help build of bridge of understanding that Proudman has refused to accept Carter-Silk’s apology, saying she feels it did not sufficiently “acknowledge that he has done something wrong.”
Certainly, Proudman is entitled to her frustration at being evaluated for her looks rather than her outstanding credentials. But if her larger goal was to help women in the workplace, she has arguably done more damage.
A case that raised important questions about the complexities of sexual objectification, especially in the age of online professional networking, has been colored, if not altogether hijacked, by a separate, distinct issue of internet privacy and shaming.
It makes for juicy tabloid reading, for sure, but regardless of the hysterical reporting, it boils down to: Carter-Silk shouldn’t have sent the message, and Proudman shouldn’t have publicly shamed him.
The quieter lesson of the whole affair is to treat all professional contacts and associates with respect, regardless of their gender and whether you find them attractive or not. If you think they have the hottest picture on LinkedIn, that’s fine—just keep it to yourself.