When barrister Charlotte Proudman publicly called out a married, male, senior solicitor for messaging her on LinkedIn to complement her for her ‘stunning picture !!!’ [sic], I gave her a firm, feminist thumbs up. It takes guts to say enough is enough to sexism, especially given the backlash that will inevitably follow.
I looked on admiringly as she refused to back down in the face of a viral tidal wave of trolls telling her she wasn’t all that stunning (and much worse), that she should learn to take a ‘compliment’, that she was arrogant and attention-seeking…
The Daily Mail joined in. It labelled the 27-year-old a ‘feminazi’ on their front page (because calling out objectification in a professional setting is definitely equivalent to genocide). It combed through her Facebook activity and pulled out screenshots of her complimenting men and women on their photos (because commenting on the appearance of people you know is definitely the same as approaching a stranger to do so in a professional setting, no matter the number of spouses who have met via LinkedIn).
For good measure it revealed that the solicitor in question, 57-year-old Alexander Carter-Silk, had commented on one of his own daughter’s Facebook photos to say she looked ‘hot’. And in the grand old offline tradition of British media his wife has been doorstopped.
Meanwhile, Proudman, who is currently on sabbatical at Cambridge University studying a PhD in the role of the law in stopping female genital mutilation, has said solicitors have already told her they will no longer instruct her on legal cases. Although, for every lawyer who turns their nose up at her, there will likely be a newly-won admirer ready with a brief.
Nonetheless, she must have known the professional risk she took speaking out (some would argue each newspaper and radio interview strays further from bravery into recklessness). Unless they are blessed with extremely supportive management, a woman who calls out sexism in private, let alone in the bearpit of Twitter, will know they could well be dismissed as overreacting. As not being able to take a joke. As a shrieking harpy, rather than a meek, compliant Mother Mary.
The sad truth is that in the modern workplace the safest and most sensible option remains not to shout loudly about sexism. The FT’s Lucy Kellaway recommends responding to a comment such as ‘you have to keep it very simple when you’re explaining it to women,’ with a neutral, ‘Sorry, I don’t understand. Why?’ And to leave if the company doesn’t mend its ways. Our own agony uncle Jeremy Bullmore has advised a lone female board member sick of boorish ‘banter’ to take the friendliest male director out for a drink to air her concerns.
To get ahead you still have to play the (largely) patriarchal game of office politics. The other options – to complain officially and pursue it to the bitter end, even to a tribunal like former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, or to go public like Proudman - are exhausting and potentially ruinous.
But sometimes they are necessary – politics does not always work. And we need women (and other minorities) brave enough to take that stand – companies and individuals, like the hapless Carter-Silk, have to get it into their heads that there are consequences for even the most casual discrimination, otherwise nothing will change.
Nonetheless, I still couldn’t advise someone in good conscience to publicly name and shame as a first resort, except in very specific cases.
Earlier this year, a PR – male and middle-aged – called me a ‘naughty, naughty girl’ over email. I panicked momentarily, feeling sick to my stomach. Then took some sage advice from a colleague and replied telling him not to patronise me. He claimed not to have been patronising, thus entirely missing the point.
Perhaps I should have explicitly told him he was being sexist – he surely wouldn’t have called a young male journalist a ‘naughty, naughty boy.’ Maybe I should have taken to Twitter to do so. But he shall remain nameless. I’m not as brave as Charlotte Proudman.