Charlotte Proudman’s initial reaction to a ‘compliment’ may seem extreme, but the backlash showed the true nature of sexism

Something far uglier than the contents of her inbox has been exposed

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The Independent Online

I admit my heart sank a little when I first heard the story of the young female barrister, the older male solicitor, and the “stunning” LinkedIn picture.

Not least because it was about LinkedIn – the worst and neediest of all websites, which sends more emails than Groupon and the Labour Party combined (whether you sign up or not) – but also because here was another story about a female barrister that had nothing to do with her case and everything to do with a nice photograph.

It was one of those #everydaysexism sagas that looked set to run and run, producing the same amount of analysis as a PhD on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

The trajectory of stories like this has become familiar. Setting: a rarefied environment – be it laboratory, university or chambers (but never a factory or a supermarket). An educated male protagonist who should know better comes up against a “feisty” female, their clash producing an online storm, which is followed by a backlash and a backlash against the backlash, until no one really knows who is in the right or wrong – and from which no one emerges looking good, let alone “stunning”.

Following in the footsteps of the Rosetta scientist Dr Matt Taylor, who wore a sexist shirt, and Sir Tim Hunt who made some off-colour remarks about female scientists in an after-dinner speech, comes Alexander Carter-Silk, 57, and his “horrendously politically incorrect” (his own words) LinkedIn message to 27-year-old barrister Charlotte Proudman. Furious that her impressive CV had been taken for a dating profile, Proudman posted her reply, upbraiding the lawyer for his “unacceptable and misogynistic behaviour”, on Twitter.

The embers of outrage, still warm with opinions on Sir Tim and women-only carriages, glowed into life, and now here we are. Where the feminist fight once involved perilous things like handcuffs and horse races, peace camps and burning bras, now there is the internet. A movement can start with a single hashtag; a good thing, and bad.

My first reaction to Proudman’s post was that it was a distraction, that shaming a daft man for a private, ill-judged comment about a picture was small fry compared with the bigger battles women face. But as the story rolled on, Proudman had exposed something far uglier than her LinkedIn inbox. The manner in which the fire has turned on Proudman is alarming indeed. She has been labelled a “feminazi” – a word that makes literally no sense – on the front page of a newspaper; she has been called “bitch” and far, far worse by hundreds of strangers online; and she has been accused repeatedly of confecting the episode to further her career, which is of course the most unladylike ambition of all.

Perhaps Proudman should been more circumspect in sharing the identity of her sexist correspondent: a private rebuke and a public sharing of his words, without a picture, would have made the same point. But whatever Carter-Silk’s intentions, boiling a woman’s CV down to her pretty picture is an undermining act, one in a long, unedifying chain that links to fewer women in positions of responsibility and unequal pay.

None of this means, as some have said, clutching their pearls and golf balls, that a man can’t pay a woman a compliment any more. Compliments are nice, and anyone who says they don’t like them is lying. But context is all: if a man has to hold back on saying the first thing that pops into his head, if he has sometimes to consider what his gender means in the workplace (as many women do every single day), it is a small price to pay for the power he wields elsewhere.

In the law, that power is overwhelming. The legal profession has a serious inequality problem. In 2014, of 1,625 self‑employed QCs, 215 were women. Just 23 per cent of judges in England and Wales are female. Female lawyers are routinely paid £50,000 less than their male peers. Proudman’s career, incidentally – in which she specialises in cases of violence against women – is now in jeopardy because she spoke out. Welcome to 2015, where women are still better off being seen in a pretty profile picture, and not heard.