Barrister Charlotte Proudman has called out Alexander Carter-Silk on his ‘offensive and sexist’ comments about what he termed her ‘stunning’ profile pic. What are the rules?

It looks like she (an aspiring barrister) sent him (a potential source of work) a request to connect. He responded in terms she found offensive. In outing Carter-Silk, Proudman concludes “I want people to know that’s not acceptable. It’s important we call this out.” I totally support Proudman’s position; she is calling out something that she has found offensive and wants to focus public attention on the area. By commenting, I can hopefully add in some small way to that focus.

Carter-Silk has defended himself: he was commenting on the professional quality of Proudman’s LinkedIn presentation (in particular her photo) rather than on her appearance. A little free advice, use of the word ‘stunning’ is interesting in that context.

One question being asked in the media is whether he should lose his job? That will be a question for his partners to decide. If they do consider his position, the question of whether he has brought his firm, Brown Rudnick, into disrepute will be in issue. For the record I am a member of the London legal community, I think that I was previously aware of the firm and I certainly now think less of them as a result of Carter-Silk’s actions. I also think that if men are going to start abiding by the rules, one or two ‘high profile executions’ will help to focus minds, but Brown Rudnick will focus on this as a purely private matter.

What are the rules? Can you comment on social media on the quality of someone else’s picture?

Rule #1 is ‘don’t do anything that may offend the recipient.’ The first problem with this rule is that the sender needs to assess the potential impact of what they are sending and you don’t control impact; you can’t be sure how your comments are going to be taken. However, you can protect yourself in obvious ways:

  1. Be more self-aware; try to assess (objectively) how your comments may be received. This will involve an assessment of who you are, how you will be viewed by the recipient and what sort of relationship (if any) you have with them. It’s instructive to look at Proudman’s response in which she refers to Carter-Silk as being ‘twice her age’. The implication is that such a response from someone her age would have been less offensive. Looking at the picture of himself in last night’s Standard Carter-Silk won’t see what other people do. But he needs to understand that to some he will look like a Dominic Strauss-Kahn.
  2. Recognise the zeitgeist; Carter-Silk, Brown Rudnick and others need to recognise that there has been quite a big thing going on for quite a long time. Many professional women feel quite strongly that they do not want to be objectified and categorised because of how they look.
  3. Remember that social media has no background context; your words won’t be softened (or hardened) by your tone etc.. There are just the words and the (very limited) context such as here your own profile pic.
  4. If you have any doubts at all ….. don’t press send. The key here I think is that Carter-Silk recognised in his post that it was ‘probably hideously politically incorrect’ but was still secure enough to send it.

The other rules are of limited impact to the current situation, but for the sake of completeness I’ll set them out.

Rule #2 is that “it’s not about intent”. So it doesn’t really matter what he was trying to achieve. People will I am sure rail on about ‘being able to pay people complements’. I would just caution that doing so on social media is higher risk than face to face.

Rule #3 is that you’re not writing only to the recipient; anyone may see what you’re sending. Carter-Silk won’t have thought for a second that I and I’m sure others would be poring over his ‘private’ comments.

Of course, in a spirit of self-awareness we should all learn from Carter-Silk’s travails and I have thought a great deal in the last twelve hours about how I conduct myself. Some months ago I commented on a colleague’s profile pic. I can’t find the post, but I think it said something like ‘Great new pic, looking 10 years younger.’As I reproduce that here I think ‘there but for the grace of God….’ Then I remember the safety net of a ten year plus working relationship during which both of us will have worked though any feelings of sexual attraction and established (probably sub-consciously) what sort of interaction we think is acceptable to the other and talked about a wide range of subjects including ageing. That said, sometimes you’ll still get it wrong, but a relationship of that type is a safety net. Thankfully a response came back quickly ‘the trick is to use an old pic!!’

People will continue to be attracted to work colleagues, flirting will go on. In the real rather than the virtual world it’s far safer, particularly if we follow the rules of increased self-awareness, calling out things that make us uncomfortable and anyone observing the interaction picking up on discomfort.

The other thing that he’s made me think about is that on Monday I commented on fabulous bright, patterned skirt that one of the women I was working with (and had never met previously) was wearing. That though is for another blog!