At first I thought of it as just another “… and finally …” story. Deluded older man makes pass at oversensitive younger woman. So what? But the more I thought about it, the more I listened to friends and colleagues discussing it, the more I picked up from reading comments on line and listening to radio discussion, the more I realised that this story chucks a grenade into the so-called politically correct, oh-so-polite employment landscape of our times.
What are the facts? The female protagonist, Charlotte Proudman, is a 27 year old barrister associated with the Chambers of Michael Mansfield QC. She is currently working towards a doctorate in Law and Sociology at the University of Cambridge researching the legal and policy approaches designed to combat female genital mutilation in England and Wales. Her male counterpart is Alexander Carter-Silk, a 57 year old partner at Brown Rudnick specialising in intellectual property law.
Ms Proudman sent a message to Mr Carter-Silk via LinkedIn, inviting him to connect with her. His response was:
“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 interested to understand people’s skills and how we might work together”
In reply, Ms Proudman wrote:
“I find your message offensive. 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.”
And apparently, Ms Proudman has reported, or intends to report Mr Carter-Silk to the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority.
In general, Ms Proudman has received a degree of lukewarm support. The consensus is that Mr Carter-Silk’s comment was inappropriate and that, although she may have accepted it as a compliment or simply ignored it as part of a misguided but fairly mundane fantasy of a man old enough to be her father, she was within her rights to tell him how she felt. That, however, is the extent of her support. Some commentators describe her as having the intellect of a brick, whilst others describe her as a “ghastly hypocrite”, and although those comments perhaps say more about the makers of the comments than they do about Ms Proudman, almost every commentator I have heard, read or spoken to agrees that she was wrong to go public with it.
That’s just one of the many questions that this story poses. Here are some others:
- How many women continue to receive unwanted sexual attention in the workplace notwithstanding our allegedly equal status?
- If people don’t speak out, would things ever change?
- Was Mr Carter-Silk’s comment, in fact, offensive?
- Was Ms Proudman’s reaction an over-reaction?
- Was it relevant that, during a Radio 4 discussion yesterday, one of the commentators referred to Mr Carter-Silk as “Mr Carter-Silk” whilst in the same breath referring to Ms Proudman as “Charlotte”?
- Was Mr Carter-Silk “naive” and “gauche” as suggested in the same debate, or was it clear from the comment itself that he knew that it may cause offence?
- Is it ever appropriate to compliment someone on their appearance in the workplace?
- Is the embarrassment suffered by Alexander proportionate to the offence suffered by Ms Proudman?
- Did Ms Proudman, as some commentators have suggested, invite discussion of her physical appearance by publishing a picture of herself (other members of her chambers have apparently chosen not to do so)?
- Is it acceptable to objectify men when it is not acceptable to objectify women?
- Was it relevant that Ms Proudman referred to Mr Carter-Silk’s age?
These are huge questions, and quite beyond the scope of this blog. But here are some of my thoughts anyway.
The fact that Mr Carter-Silk acknowledged that he was about to be in appropriate (or, in his somewhat loaded words, “politically incorrect”) shows very clearly that he knew that Ms Proudman may be offended, but that he didn’t care. Or at least he didn’t care enough to not say it. Nothing gauche about that in my view; more an example of someone feeling entitled to say what he wanted.
This shouldn’t mean that well-meant compliments should never be given in the workplace. It is a great shame that some people feel that they mustn’t say anything. It’s like men who are afraid to open doors for a woman lest they be violently harangued for being sexist. Personally, I just think it’s rude if someone (man, woman, whatever) drops a door on your face. Similarly, I will compliment a colleague (regardless of age or gender) if I notice a new hair-do, or suit, or a good piece of work. Happiness is what makes the world goes round, and if a compliment makes someone happy, then that’s a good thing. Crucially, however, the recipient should not feel judged solely on the subject of the compliment, and that is clearly going to be a risk for an older man complimenting a much younger woman on the subject of her beauty.
Of course, as pointed out, Ms Proudman could have used a picture of a barrister’s wig as her profile picture, as many of her colleagues in chambers have done. That would surely have avoided all risk of unwanted attention. I’m not so sure. I have seen, and been taken aback by, profile pictures on LinkedIn of professional women who seem to be making full use their natural attributes (or “talents” as my 1970s dad calls them) to attract attention. Whether or not that is desirable is a whole different debate, and one I shall avoid just now. What is relevant to this discussion is the fact that Ms Proudman’s picture is clearly not designed to attract that sort of attention. She is dressed entirely conservatively with a somewhat severe haircut. If ever there was a serious-looking young woman who was unlikely to welcome a sexual advance on LinkedIn, it was this one, yet if that didn’t put off the amorous advances of a middle-aged man, then maybe an empty wig would have proved similarly irresistible.
On the subject of objectification, I was asked why objectification of men is apparently acceptable, when the same cannot be said of women. I doubt that anyone would feel that objectification of men is any more acceptable, but it might be said that the difference generally is the power imbalance which still exists between men and women. If a male colleague is admired for his powerful physique and pretty face, then he remains safe in the knowledge that he is still more likely to make it to the boardroom, more likely to get there quicker, and more likely to earn more money on the way.
Some of Ms Proudman’s critics did not like the fact that she referred to Mr Carter-Silk’s age. They said she was being “ageist”. I believe the point that she was trying to make was that if she was unlikely to welcome sexual advances on LinkedIn, then she was even less likely to welcome them from a man old enough to be her father. Yes, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that older men like younger women, but that does not mean that younger women are required, or even likely, to welcome their attention. Another reason why he should have known, and in fact did know, that his comment was unlikely to be warmly received.
And as for the “Mr Carter-Silk” and “Charlotte” references by the Radio 4 commentator, you will be unsurprised to hear that yes, I do think it’s relevant. Mr Carter-Silk was afforded the respect implied by the use of his title and surname; the silly little girl who was making such a fuss was not. (It’s possible of course that the commentator, a barrister, knows Ms Proudman personally, in which case the distinction may not be relevant, but given his view that Ms Proudman was being oversensitive, his use of her first name was at least unfortunate.)
I am not wholly unsympathetic to Mr Carter-Silk. He is a man of a certain age, and it must be difficult to keep reminding himself that things are different now. I also cringe at the embarrassment he must be suffering. Taking that into account, perhaps Ms Proudman’s critics are right, and her public reaction was disproportionate.
One of Jimmy Savile’s legacies was to reopen the debate about sexual harassment in the workplace, as women from the 1970s and 80s recalled the behaviour they had been expected to endure from their male colleagues back then. Unfortunately, it seems that although in theory these are more enlightened times, in practice, it still goes on. If Ms Proudman had kept the matter private, then it’s possible that Mr Carter-Silk would have continued to make inappropriate and potentially offensive comments to other people. By going public, the debate continues.
I venture to suggest that the majority of us, at one time or another in our lives, have either suffered inappropriate attention in the workplace, or are aware of someone who has, but who has not complained. The reasons for not complaining or going public are myriad, but might include a fear that one would not be believed, or if believed, not taken seriously, or accused of being oversensitive. Indeed, a senior male solicitor has posted a comment in response to the story to the effect that Ms Proudman herself will be “blacklisted”. In the face of that somewhat sinister reaction, some might feel that Ms Proudman was rather brave to speak out. Some might also feel that the comment rather proves the point.
On the other hand, Ms Proudman could have followed up on her complaint to the SRA, perhaps waiting for their response before going public. Most would agree that that would have been a more proportionate response. But she had already complained to Brown Rudnick, and had apparently received an apology for the “offence caused”, not for the offensive remark itself. Some might agree that this probably compounded, rather than atoned for, the original offence.
In the end, this story is about so much more than a misjudged comment or an oversensitive “victim”. It’s about questions of what is acceptable and what is not; when it’s right to speak out and when one should maintain privacy. It’s about whether silence breeds tolerance of the unacceptable. It’s about equality in the workplace and an open and respectful professional relationship between male and female colleagues. It’s about the fact that, in these enlightened times, we are baffled by and cut adrift from the rules of daily interaction and we no longer know what we can and can’t say. It’s about our children being raised as equals and their ability, as they become the workers of the future, to work together.
Finally, I would like to add that, during my many discussions on this subject over the past 24 hours, I have experienced from my male colleagues and friends universal acceptance of the fact that Mr Carter-Silk’s comment was inappropriate, and support for the principle of Ms Proudman’s decision to reprimand him. Whilst therefore she stands almost alone in her decision to go public, I am confident that as members of my generation and the younger generation become more senior, the workplace will continue to evolve into a better and more equal place where women are not objectified and men feel able to be nice without fear of emasculation or public vilification.