Changing your profile picture isn’t really a big deal. Many social media users do it on a weekly or even daily basis.

But as is evident from the scandal that erupted from barrister Charlotte Proudman’s photo on her LinkedIn profile, a simple profile picture can open up a far reaching social debate.

There was nothing inappropriate or even unusual about Ms Proudman’s photo selection. But when a professional contact commented on her “stunning picture” she decided to publicize his private message, naming and shaming the culprit and accusing him of objectifying women. Writing about the experience, she said, “All too often, women are afraid to speak up about these small but significant comments on their appearance which happen every single day,” (The Guardian, 10th September 2015).

Ms Proudman’s actions have divided public opinion. She has been vilified by areas of the press and public for over-reacting, unable to take a harmless compliment and branded an aggressive feminist. Fellow legal professionals have taken to Twitter to publically declare her unemployable and claim they would never work with her following her actions.

She has responded by noting the overwhelming support she has received personally from both men criticising this type of behaviour and other women who share her experience, many of whom posted similar anecdotes on Twitter, including being asked if they were married and told they were beautiful via professional networking sites.

Whether you agree that her experience constitutes the eroticism of women’s physical appearance, or believe that it was just a harmless compliment, this story opens up an interesting debate. That it made national news shows the level of public interest in this topic.

Firstly, it exposes the many unknowns in the world of social media. Social media is now so entrenched in our society and culture, it’s hard to remember that we haven’t actually used it for very long. We’ve already had lots of firsts: the first cyber-bully was jailed in 2009 for 3 months for sending death threats to a fellow student at school (they were both aged just 18); the first cyber suicide pact which took place in Japan in 2000. Now it seems that scandals can rock the rather sedate echelons of professional sites.

Secondly, it draws attention to one of the biggest contradictions in modern day recruitment practices in the UK: Photo on your LinkedIn profile? Essential if you want to appear credible and present a comprehensive profile. Photo on your CV? No way.

For years, candidates who included a photo on their CV have been ridiculed and discredited – in the UK at least (its common practice to include a photo in continental Europe). But on a more serious note, those looking at diversity and inclusion have actively campaigned to eliminate photos from CVs in order to prevent unconscious bias or outright discrimination from seeping into the selection process. Indeed, there have even been calls for candidates’ names to be left off their CVs in order to level the playing field and prevent gender and racial bias.

And here’s the contradiction: recruiters are quite likely to research candidates on LinkedIn to verify CVs or to find out a bit more about the candidates themselves, including what they look like – whether they want to or not! This opens the door to both unconscious bias and conscious discrimination. Once you have seen someone’s profile picture, it’s very difficult to ‘forget’ what they look like; their age, their race, their gender – as well, of course, as their level of attractiveness! Surely this allows decisions to be made, or at least influenced, by factors that constitute discrimination.

This is in addition to Ms Proudman’s suggestion that some less ethical professionals are using LinkedIn like Tinder, a renowned dating site, making connections for very personal rather than professional gain.

Thirdly, it points to sexism as a contextual issue. Would the reaction have been the same if the comment was posted on Facebook? Probably not. And if it was posted by a friend or established contact? Definitely not. So it was the forum rather than the actual comment that caused offence; it was a sexist remark in the context of a professional networking site, and the fact that it came from a virtual stranger.


There are a few lessons to be learned from this incident:

  1. Professional networking sites should be kept professional: comments or posts should be appropriate in tone and style;
  2. Avoid over-familiarity: the ease of communication on social media can make us far less formal than we would be meeting someone in the workplace. Remember, unless you already know someone, they are a stranger and you have no idea of their personality and what they will find offensive or humorous;
  3. Posts that are made on LinkedIn and other networking sites can be shared with the world in seconds. Once it’s out there, you are powerless to stop others sharing and re-sharing your words. So choose them carefully.