LinkedIn is a lot of things: A convenient place to upload your resume online, a weird portal for “thinkfluencers” to post inspirational screeds about leadership à la Forbes.com, a site that indulges the 2008 Facebook dream by telling you (albeit in very limited ways) who’s been checking out your profile.
But it is also, indisputably, the social network of choice among older men.
The evidence for this is both anecdotal (everyone’s dad loves LinkedIn) and statistical (37% of LinkedIn’s users are over 50, users skew predominantly male, and fully 85% are 30 or older).
The knowledge of this used to be vaguely comforting — on any given day, you could log in, and find a wealth of posts detailing “Ten Tips for Talking Technology” and “How to Pursue Lifelong Learning.” But this week, after the 27-year-old English barrister Charlotte Proudman tweeted a LinkedIn message sent to her by a much older partner at a law firm complimenting her on her “stunning picture!!!,” two things became clear.
The first is that senior partners in law firms overuse exclamation points just as much as Millennial women purportedly do. The second is that some men are apparently hoping LinkedIn is the new Ashley Madison.
Proudman’s tweet prompted other women to reveal some of the messages they’d been sent by older men on the site under the guise of “networking.”
Proudman elaborated on her reasons for posting the message in an op-ed for The Independent.
"Like many women (and men), I signed up to LinkedIn to connect with professionals in order to enhance my career prospects. Instead, I have received several messages commenting on my appearance and asking me to go on a date. After a catalogue of these similar incidents, I decided to call out sexist behavior by a fellow lawyer by publishing his message and my response on Twitter."
The first issue with this is that there are already a number of social-networking platforms that exist for people to connect with other people romantically, and the fact that LinkedIn is the only one older men know how to use doesn’t make it okay for a career-oriented site to be co-opted in this way. The second is that it’s gross.
LinkedIn, unlike Ashley Madison, has plenty of actual women as members who are actually looking to further their careers by meeting actual like-minded people in similar industries.
But it also apparently has a plentiful number of older men looking to use their career success to impress ambitious young women with their “mentorship” potential. As the lawyer who complimented Proudman on her picture wrote at the end of his message, “Always interest [sic] to understant [sic] people’s skills and how we might work together.”
Proudman has inevitably been criticized for posting a private message, for being unable to “take a compliment,” and for being a “feminazi” who concocted a media storm in a teacup to raise her own public profile. More ominously, she’s also been blamed for reaching out to the man who messaged her in the first place.
“I think we have to look at how this developed,” Matthew Scott, a barrister and legal blogger, told the BBC. “Charlotte sent him a message asking him to connect, so the initial contact was made by Charlotte. He later complimented her stunning picture, so I do think this crime is provoked by Charlotte.” Franklin Sinclair, the head of the criminal law firm Tuckers, also seemed to call for retaliation against Proudman by other lawyers.
The problem, at least for women like Proudman, is that receiving a compliment is one thing, but being put in an awkward position by a powerful person in the same industry is something else entirely. The act of networking is plenty obnoxious enough already even without considering all the gender, age, and status dynamics that go into seeking career guidance from another human being. As LinkedIn’s very slogan specifies, “relationships matter.” Want to connect with a woman in a nonprofessional way? There’s a (totally different) app for that.
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