Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for May, 2022 is Gender at Workplaces. We invite submissions on the many layers of this theme throughout the month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly refer to our submission guidelines and email your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org
It started with a simple message on LinkedIn enquiring about my research area. The sender’s profile read that he was affiliated to one of the most renowned organisations in India. So, I responded. Within a span of five minutes, without even knowing my qualification or experience, the person asked for my contact and if we could meet the next time he was in Kathmandu. I stopped replying.
I know for a fact that this is not just my experience. A quick look into #LinkedInisnotTinder on LinkedIn gives one all the female testimonies to know how pervasive unwanted advances close to borderline harassment is on LinkedIn. Now of course, LinkedIn is not the only platform which has a stock of men creeping in the DMs. A global study in 2020 reported that nearly 60 per cent of girls experience harassment on social media platforms causing them to quit their use altogether. But what makes harassment on LinkedIn more troublesome?
LinkedIn is an online platform primarily used for professional networking and career development. Unlike other social media websites, where people might be looking for friendships or even potential partners, LinkedIn is a space to explore professional opportunities. Ideally, that should be the prime motive for connecting with people and responding to them on the platform.
For the same reason, people add connections out of their circles. Usually it is only after skimming through the person’s profile, looking at their professional background and affiliations. With all of this, one naturally expects professionalism from them. So, when it is not some random anonymous teenage boy sending you cheeky messages but a seemingly respectable professional, it is overwhelming. An 18 year old stopped using LinkedIn altogether after one such incident.
This becomes especially taxing when in the name of professional communication, the person demands a contact number or even a physical meeting. In some cases, you might downright ignore it, but in other cases, when the approaches are not so outright, where do you draw the line? How do you sieve opportunity from scam, professional from personal, good from bad?
In cases when a woman speaks out against such harassment, a line of men seem to counter argue with #NotAllMen or some form of victim blaming. Recently, Drashti Suthar made a public post naming and posting a screenshot of her message exchange with a person who kept asking for her number even after repeated refusal.
One look through the comments section makes one understand the level of understanding of consent among men. There are hordes of men asking what was wrong in asking her Whatsapp number and blaming Suthar for publicly exposing the message sender. A man has commented, “I have seen many such posts which are just posted to get likes and comments and nothing more. There are many options like block, dial 100 (if a girl is so much offended) or just post a cyber complaint for harassment. But the girl decides to post it on LinkedIn. For your information I don’t and will never support such guys but I won’t support such girls either who posts such things in a professional platform instead of taking legal action.”
Along with ignoring consent, this shows the lack of empathy and understanding of how the burden is being pushed on the survivor instead of the perpetrator, and these are all comments by professional men who are comfortable with sharing their misogynistic views to the whole world with conviction.
These unwanted approaches are seldom overt, and that makes it extremely difficult to take legal actions against them. You can either block, or report the person or publicly shame them. Whether public shaming is an adequate deterrent is a debate for another day. But it definitely helps other women to remain vigilant and not fall into the traps of these men.
From a male point of view, women’s responses to their approach may seem like an “overreaction.” But the thing is that for most women, their inboxes are full of messages that are invasive and out of the line. It is a taxing process to go through the list of these men, wondering who might be a possible predator. Personally, I think this whole ordeal is just not worth going through. So, I don’t respond to half of my messages altogether, even if that means putting myself at a disadvantage professionally.
Through constant sharing and reporting of such incidents by women, it is apparent that LinkedIn is aware of such issues. In the Professional Community Policies of LinkedIn there is a clause which reads: “Do not engage in unwanted advances: We don’t allow unwanted expressions of attraction, desire, requests for a romantic relationship, marriage proposals, sexual advances or innuendo, or lewd remarks. Do not use LinkedIn to pursue romantic connections, ask for romantic dates, or provide sexual commentary on someone’s appearance.”
LinkedIn users can report harassment on the site. It will apparently be reviewed through their machine learning harassment detection system. When I reported a profile, I was asked for a screenshot of the message exchange between us. I am asked to wait until the reviewing process ends, along with a ‘consoling‘ message, “We understand that differences of opinion happen; however, this doesn’t justify flagging content.”
I have to say, I don’t have high hopes after going through this response posted by another user when she reported a harassing profile. As she rightly mentions, while the advances may feel like a minor offense to somebody else and might even be dismissed, these advances can quickly escalate. Should a person wait for an extreme form of harassment to happen with before reporting or should they ignore and move on?
LinkedIn‘s research has clearly discovered that cases of unwanted advances are severely underreported in the platform. Maybe, it can do better by using its machine learning harassment detection system for verifying and flagging repeated abusers. Usually, the same person adds similar people in a circle and sends problematic messages. If more people report, then perhaps the algorithm can do a better work of identifying the sender as a potential online predator.
But beyond all of LinkedIn‘s strategies to fight harassment ( or lack thereof), the bigger problem seems to be men not knowing how to approach women professionally. This could be due to a long history of lack of women in professional circles or the patriarchal mindset which refuses to see professional capabilities of women first, and focuses on sexualising them. Whatever it be, this definitely needs introspection from the society as a whole, and not just the users of the platform because most of the time, the online space only replicates the real world.
For now, we can only ask individuals to be cautious. If it’s really a professional opportunity, then you can stick with chat and emails after clearly stating your purpose for communication. If the person tries to overstep your boundary, respond with a resounding no. If there is outright harassment, publicly name and report. This is important to prevent such persons from harassing others. For men, if you’d like to connect with a professional opportunity, it is better to get right to the point.
Yesterday, I went through my messages on LinkedIn once again. Most of them were sent immediately after connecting, thanking me and asking how I am. Could I have pre-judged some people too harshly? I think about the message from one particular man with whom my research interests coincided.
Today, I received a message from a friend asking if a particular screenshot can be helpful for my article. It was a screenshot of a message by the same man to my friend, trying to engage in casual conversation. She told me that when she asked him to stick to professionalism, he blocked her.
Just when I thought maybe I should recheck my biases, I am assured once again that my anxieties are not baseless.
Featured Image: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India