How women are fighting back against harassment on LinkedIn

Like many professionals, I start my day with a cup of coffee and a quick scan of LinkedIn. It’s part of my mental “power hour” where I catch up on what happened overnight and fill my brain with the news, insights and trends that will help me do better work each day.

It’s something I always look forward to. That is until I began following The Female Lead and began reading the comments on their posts.

The Female Lead is a UK-based charity dedicated to making women’s stories more visible, offering alternative role models to those typically celebrated in popular culture. Their LinkedIn presence consists of sharing stories, memes, and quotes of inspiring women. Their content is inspiring, fun and completely innocuous.

Last month I came across a typical post, featuring a smiling woman holding a sign that said “Spoke to my ex after 10 years. ‘Miss or Ms’ he asked. ‘Dr.’ I said.” As I clicked on “like” my cursor hovered over “comments” and I saw they had over 10,000 comments. Curious, I decided to take a peak and find out what people were saying. What I read made me nauseous.

Many of the comments were filled with derision, marginalization and even outright hate directed at the female subject of the post. Comments from professional men whose pictures, names and places of work were visible for everyone to see. Men who felt so comfortable with their misogyny that they were empowered to share it on a platform for professionals designed to help us advance our networks and careers.

This type of sexist trolling is commonly found on other social media platforms where users can (and do) hide under a cloak anonymity provided by avatars and screen names. There is no anonymity on LinkedIn, which makes the appearance of harassing comments even more disconcerting.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Female Lead isn’t the only high-profile female presence on LinkedIn this is happening to. Cindy Gallup is an advertising industry legend, tech founder, and diversity and inclusion activist. Gallup has experienced harassment throughout her tenure on LinkedIn and is now actively calling it out. It started a year ago when she tweeted a New York Times article (written by a man) citing male user experiences on LinkedIn finding that criticism of other user’s posts “tends to be measured” and purporting it to be a “controversy-free zone”. Her tweet resulted in a stream of comments from women detailing an environment where misogyny, sexual harassment, and propositioning run rampant.

Gallup reached out to LinkedIn with three simple product design solutions that could be implemented quickly to reduce harassment and abuse of women before it occurs on LinkedIn. They are:

  1. At the top of every LinkedIn page (where ads currently run) add this message: ‘This is a professional networking platform. Please don’t say or message anything on LinkedIn that you would not say out loud, publicly, in an office. Please report any inappropriate messages and any harassment or abuse in comments to [email protected]
  2. In every comment box add a grayed-out message that says, ‘Please, keep it professional.’
  3. In every message box, where it currently says, ‘Write a message’, replace with, ‘Please ensure your message is professional. Please report inappropriate messages [email protected]

According at a recent official LikedIn blogpost, they will be rolling out several new tools this Fall to help reduce harassment, including a feature that is in line with Cindy’s recommendations to add a reminder to keep things professional on all new posts. Other new tools LinkedIn says they will be introducing include warnings at the top of messages that might include harassing content, updates sent to people who report inappropriate content (or had their content blocked), and strengthened Professional Community Policies.

LinkedIn’s planned improvements, while functional, continue to rely on users to report harassment when it occurs. It puts the onus on women to moderate and remediate harassment by taking action when they experience it. And women already have plenty on their plates without adding unpaid monitor to the list.

When asked to comment on the experience of women facing harassment on LinkedIn and their efforts to combat it, LinkedIn’s VP of Communications, Nicole Leverich said:

“Harassment in any form violates our policies and is not tolerated on LinkedIn. We recently introduced a host of new tools in this space, including strengthening our Professional Community Policies to be even clearer that we don’t allow harassment or unwanted advances on LinkedIn. We’ve also added reminders to keep conversations professional in posts, comments, and messages, added in-line warnings on messages that may include harassment, and introduced a more transparent reporting process so members are in the loop on the action we take when they report. More information on those features and our ongoing work to keep LinkedIn safe, trusted and professional can be found in a recent post by Direct of Product, Liz Li. We do also regularly speak with and listen to members to ensure we keep LinkedIn a safe place for everyone. “

The problem isn’t going away

LinkedIn is strengthening their community policies and introducing several new tools to help mitigate harassment of users on their platform.Unfortunately this approach doesn’t solve for the right problem. The problem on LinkedIn isn’t the harassment of users, it’s that the harassment is primarily of women. And if LinkedIn can’t (or won’t) acknowledge that women are the main target of harassment on their platform is a problem then how can they possibly fix it? More importantly, by not acknowledging this is happening they reinforce the institutionalization of misogyny on their platform.

Strengthened guidelines, policy reminders and visibility to incident resolution are good additions.  Tools should not turn users into moderators.  The new in-line warnings ideally would function as triggers to block offending content or send directly to LinkedIn for remediation.  If content is inappropriate enough to warrant a warning then it shouldn’t be allowed through and leave it to the user to report.

While it is shocking and disappointing to see these types of comments on LinkedIn, it’s unfortunately not surprising. Nearly 60% of women and girls using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have suffered abuse, according to a new global study from girls’ equity group Plan International.  The same study found that the reporting tools social media platforms rely on are ineffective at stopping abuse.

What is surprising is the lack of transparency to how pervasive the problem really is. That’s because LinkedIn is a private network and doesn’t allow any monitoring from any software. That means it’s impossible to conduct an independent social listening study to quantify how pervasive the issue actually is.

What can be done

LinkedIn is a powerful tool used by hundreds of millions of people across the globe to connect with other users and advance their careers. I continue to use it but hesitate before reading comments because of what I expect to find. The proliferation of harassing comments has resulted in my changing my behavior, removing myself from the conversation entirely. This is the opposite of the behavior LinkedIn sets out to promote.

What can be done? Here are my suggestions:

LinkedIn, please work with a social listening platform to quantify the pervasiveness of harassment of women on your platform. Making the data public will show women you are serious about stopping harassment, so serious you provide the transparency we need to understand how bad the problem really is.

LinkedIn users, if you don’t like what you see there are alternatives.
Women have an ever-growing list of career advancement platforms to choose from, including PowerToFly, Fairygodboss, and The Riveter. Better yet, we need a global professional network designed to facilitate intersectional productivity and success, that focuses on community-building, and where bias is not tolerated.

Advertisers, consider your advertising spend. Many brands withhold advertising dollars from media properties that feature content not in line with their values. If your customers are seeing misogynistic comments, are being propositioned, or having their successes publicly marginalized, is this the right environment for your message?

The comments directed at women are the tip of the iceberg, often coupled with references to race, nationality, or political leanings. As a loyal LinkedIn user I will take responsibility to do my part to make it a safe, productive space for everyone. In return I hope that LinkedIn will do the same.

Katie Fiore is the founder of Her Future Work, a social impact organization dedicated to using the future of work as a platform for gender equality. She is passionate about creative problem solving, growth strategy and marketing innovation. Follow Katie on LinkedIn or check out her lifestyle blog, Brooklyn to the Catskills.

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