Rules of engagement: Where does courtesy end and sexism begin?

Does the rise of feminism mean the age of chivalry is dead, or do women still want men to open doors for them and to pay for their drinks?  Vicki Notaro investigates everyday sexism and online etiquette.

SOMETIMES, the male of the species gets a bad rap. Of course, not every human of the masculine variety is a sexist, misogynist, or worse — you only have to look at the Twitter hashtag, #NotAllMen, to see that.

Often guys are just trying to be polite, chivalrous and appealing to women, however misguidedly.

But thanks to writers like Caitlin Moran, Lena Dunham and Polly Vernon, the f-word (that’s feminism) has gone mainstream in recent years, with social media spreading the message faster than ever before.

Though feminists have been vocal about sexism for decades, the concept, and what is and isn’t OK, was introduced to a new generation via Twitter accounts like @everydaysexism, where women shared their experiences, from the relatively harmless (albeit disconcerting) and irritating to the downright terrifying.

Rules of engagement: Where does courtesy end and sexism begin?

However, many still misunderstand feminism’s meaning. Feminism is simply a quest for equality, and a railing against those who wish to keep women down — not a man-bashing exercise, or a desire to dominate.

There are women who aren’t bothered with the status quo, but many are also calling for an end to frequent sexism, everything from being paid less than their male counterparts and being catcalled and condescended, to being groped, made to feel unsafe and even just dismissed for being female. 

More and more young women are standing up for themselves and refusing to be ogled or sexualised, particularly when it comes to work.

We also live in a world where our every tweet, status update, comment and even private message is up for debate. 

In an instant, we can put a foot wrong online, and even if we realise our faux pas and delete it, chances are it has already been screen-grabbed. 

Women, myself included, are often targeted with sexist comments online, and there are people who play up to this very fact, trolling us all with extreme opinions to raise hackles and boost profiles. 

But trolls aside, have we become increasingly politically correct, fearful of a backlash on the internet?

Online spats nowadays are de rigeur, with people arguing on a daily basis, and for some it has become a spectator sport. 

This month, such a spat leapt off the internet and onto the front page of some newspapers. Part sexism, part flirtation, it got people talking.

Alexander Carter-Silk, a 57-year-old lawyer, connected with fellow lawyer, 27-year-old Charlotte Proudman, on the professional networking site, LinkedIn, after she sent him a request. 

Rules of engagement: Where does courtesy end and sexism begin?

He then sent her a private message, paying her a clumsy compliment.

“I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect, but that is a stunning picture!” he wrote. 

“You definitely win the prize for the best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen.” 

Ms Proudman responded that she wasn’t on the professional network to be “objectified by sexist men”, adding that Carter-Silk should “think twice before sending another woman (half your age) such a sexist message.” 

It could have ended there, with Carter-Silk rightfully red-faced, albeit privately. 

However, Ms Proudman took it into the public realm and posted a picture of their exchange to Twitter, igniting a firestorm. 

She felt it was her right to showcase what she believed was sexism, and the fact that she was judged on her looks in a professional capacity.

Within days, journalists had accessed her personal Facebook account and trawled it for any signs of impropriety by her.

When they uncovered that she had, in fact, dished out compliments herself, to both men and women, they attempted to undermine her position. 

But does the fact that she called one man “hot stuff” on a private social network, and told other ladies they looked stunning, take away from the fact that she felt she was the object of sexism on a professional website?

Writing in the Guardian a week later, Ms Proudman said that she had been been getting death threats for speaking out. 

She’s been called humourless, a “feminazi” and mocked for not being able to accept a compliment, and been accused by many of trying to ruin Mr Carter Silk.

She believes she was just highlighting a single instance of sexism, and that she’s well within her rights to do so. 

“The truth is,” she wrote. 

“I have committed a double transgression. Not only have I refused to passively accept being objectified; I have also refused to apologise for having the temerity to take a stand.”

It’s a difficult encounter to parse. Perhaps Mr Carter-Silk didn’t mean much harm, and was probably shocked by the entire furore. 

But, then, perhaps a 57-year-old married man shouldn’t be using a site like LinkedIn to message a woman 30 years his junior to comment on her looks. 

Her headshot doesn’t exactly invite such interest — it’s a perfectly professional shot.

But did Ms Proudman need to shame Carter-Silk publically, especially allowing his name and photo to be seen in her tweet? 

Perhaps she could have revealed the content of the message without disclosing his personal details. 

That’s likely what I would have done, had I been in her situation.

And I have been in her situation. I’ve received private messages on Facebook, from strangers, complimenting me on my looks. However, never on LinkedIn. Somehow, because it’s a professional site, it seems worse.

Yet, from benign to downright sexist, I’ve had male colleagues comment on my looks many times, some more innocent and well-meaning than others. 

One remarked on my leather leggings, another said I was “holding my breasts” in the office because I was resting my chest on my folded arms on my desk.

But, then, I’ve passed comment on guys in work, too — a nice shirt they’re wearing, or their haircut. 

Was I objectifying them? Or was it okay, because it’s mutual?

I met my partner at work, and there’s no doubt I ogled him there, albeit silently. 

But he was single and in my age bracket, and I never made any overt comments in the workplace, so does that make it okay? 

Or is it alright to pay physical compliments to people you know already?

Suzanne Sheridan, the founder of recruitment company,, says what we say on the web is all about being appropriate, if we want to be well-received. 

“Unfortunately, people sometimes fail to differentiate when it comes to the appropriate methods of communication used. 

"What has worked for us, as a business, is speaking to either clients or candidate online in the same manner we would if we were speaking to them in a meeting over a coffee, so perhaps that’s a good way to avoid this sort of thing online. 

"All people want is to be dealt with in a courteous and respectful manner.”

When I asked my peers if we should ever compliment somebody on their physical appearance in a professional capacity, it prompted a strong reaction: “I read that piece and I felt he wasn’t being sleazy,” said 30-year-old Emma, from Dublin. 

“Yes, he probably shouldn’t have said it, but she shouldn’t have done what she did either. I would question her professionalism more than his. 

"Appearance, and how we perceive people, is something ingrained in us and we aren’t evolving fast enough to eradicate it.”

“Carter-Silk paid her a compliment and if she didn’t like it, she just had to say it to him and that would have been the end of it,” says Philip, 33. 

“Women in my job, and previous jobs, have always made comments about men in the office, but I’ve never seen that as a problem — it’s only a compliment or banter, and if it is taken too far, it just has to be said. 

"There’s so much PC bullshit these days.”

“She has every right to stand up for herself and, thanks to her, this issue is being discussed,” says 29- year-old Elaine. 

“Thanks to her, men might now think twice before making comments like that. The legal profession, and every other one for that matter, is slowly, but surely, becoming more equal, with just as many women rising to prominent positions. 

"If anyone should be concerned about their jobs, it’s sexist men.”

Perhaps it’s all about good internet etiquette, and using social networks for the purpose intended.

Both Ms Proudman and Mr Carter Silk could be accused of poor internet etiquette, after all. 

When contacted for comment, a LinkedIn spokesman said: “The 380m members on LinkedIn, from around the world, including 1m from Ireland, are members because they want to build their careers and become better professionals.

The online world has no shortage of places for people looking for dates; it’s neither common, nor effective, to do that on LinkedIn. And if someone insists on trying, we have tools in place to block those people — and, where necessary, remove them from the site altogether.”

Rules of engagement: Where does courtesy end and sexism begin?

This is not to imply that’s what Carter-Silk was doing, but the message is clear — keep the compliments about physical appearance from the professional platforms, or risk being exposed on the web.

Women in 2015 are less accepting of what men see as gentlemanly or traditionally tolerable behavior.

If we’re struggling, of course offer to help us, as we would with you — but uninvited advances, belittling comments or even bottom-patting? Forget it.

Guide to acceptable and unacceptable social behaviour towards women:


* Helping with heavy bags.

* Holding a door open if you’re entering first.

* Offering a seat if we’re the only one standing in a room.

* Courteous behaviour on a date.

* Splitting bills, or insisting on paying now and then (we’ll return the favour).


* Casual comments on our appearance, positive or negative.

* Pet names, unless we’re related or in a relationship.

* Any behaviour that can be construed as leering or sleazy.

* Possessive body language or unasked for touching — see head patting, knee tapping. Guiding us by the elbow.

* Being aghast at the thought of splitting bills, or being bought a meal or drink by a woman.


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