Casual sexism is a minefield for men

The gender wars have always been a minefield for men. We've stumbled, bewildered, through the smoke for years, bomb after bomb going off around us.

"Don't hold the door for me, condescending pig!" Boom! "I can pay for my own dinner, I do have a job, you know!" Bang!

It used to be enough to tiptoe around the landmines of political incorrectness; most were well signposted if you possessed even half a brain.

These days, it's not just the bombs you have to watch out for. A media-manned machine gun, a blogging sniper, or a Twitter drone strike can cut you down in the blink of an eye.

Something you said perceived as misogynistic? Your career, relationships and a lifetime of respect and goodwill can be sabotaged in a vindictive instant without so much as a chance to plead your case or offer up a mea culpa.

Bombing out

Last week we witnessed the sorry case of Alexander Carter-Silk, a 57-year-old British lawyer who received an invite on professional networking site LinkedIn to add Charlotte Proudman, 27, to his network.

Delighted by her accompanying photograph, he clearly completely forgot the world has moved on in the last 25 years, responding: "I appreciate this is probably horrendously politically incorrect, but that is a stunning picture!!!"

It wasn't "probably" horrendously incorrect. And as he peered out from beneath the rock he has clearly been hiding under, he got strafed by a fighter jet.

"The eroticisation of women's physical appearance is a way of exercising power over women," Proudman fired back, and warned Carter-Silk to think twice before sending such a sexist message again.


The point had rightfully been made and it could have ended there, but Proudman took a screenshot of Carter-Silk's idiotic response, and her scathing reply to it, and posted it on Twitter - a device the old dinosaur may never have previously heard of, but bloody well has now.

I'd say right now Carter-Silk is on the foetal position on his leather couch, on his second Chivas and crying for Nanny.

Yes, he needed to be made aware of the potential harm of his actions. But he didn't deserve the public shaming that will follow the rest of his high-profile career and a loss of income that could run to six figures.

Think before you Link

None of this is to diminish the problem of sexualisation of professional women on LinkedIn, which is real.

My partner has a significant problem with the "dirty old men" who try to link with her and has repeatedly complained of being covertly harassed over the last couple of years.

A quick check showed a Canadian fisherman and an LA financier who thought they might like to add a female Sydney communications and PR specialist to their network. Nothing to do with her picture at all, of course.

It makes her feel disrespected and professionally diminished, and just plain pisses her off.

"It annoys me," she said recently, "when I see a man with an arm slung around their girlfriend's shoulders. It's like ownership."

Right, so no public girlfriend hugging then. That is now sexist. Check. But I assume my girlfriend is still allowed to put her arm around me? When a man does it there's an imbalance of power and it's sexist. When a woman does it, it's just love, right?

Double standards

What about the word "babe"? Working in media and creative, generally surrounded by people a good deal younger than me, "babe" has become like "mate" as a generic name replacement.

Women call each other "babe" all the time. I get called "babe" quite regularly too, and never do I think it means someone believes I'm an actual babe. It's just "Hey, babe, can you send me that thing?"

But do I call my staff and colleagues "babe" in return? Nope. Because it's like a handgun with the safety released, ready to go off. Same with "darling" or "sweetheart" or, worst of all, "m'dear".

The kiss at the bottom of an email is also to be avoided at all times. I receive them quite regularly. It's not at all romantic, it's just, in the context they're sent, kind of friendly.

But would I send one? Absolutely not. A 25-year-old woman can do it, but a 50-year-old man can not.

The reason, as Mr Carter-Silk discovered, is quite simple. It is possible that any such gesture that is meaningless to you or I may be misconstrued, and suddenly you're being accused of casual sexism. Not just to our faces. On Twitter, to the world.

Two buttons, no dignity

I recall times in Australian media, not so very long ago, when sexism wasn't just casual, it was overt. We've fortuitously come a long way from the "two-button" rule, which was how many blouse buttons a female was instructed to undo when meeting a particularly important advertiser. Women invoked the two-button rule to other women, too. I don't remember anyone ever saying out loud, or to HR, they had a problem with it. But I bet they did.

This is the place some of us come from, especially the Carter-Silks of the world. So it's all the more important to think before we speak and, when in doubt, leave it out. It's simply an issue of respect.

Carter-Silk heard the warning siren - he admits as much - but ignored it. We all need to listen for that siren and behave accordingly. Look at what you're writing, listen to what you're saying, and, as my dad used to say to me, rather unsuccessfully, "engage your brain before your mouth".

It's not good enough to believe commenting on a woman's appearance is "harmless fun". If she feels uncomfortable, you've been sexist, whether you intended it or not. It's your fault she's upset.

That's the way it is now. We need to accept that, as men, there are things we can't say or write to a woman, especially in the professional environment. And why on earth would we want or need to?

If I need to spend an hour or two telling a woman how beautiful she is, I'll do it at home, where it's not just acceptable but openly encouraged.

It's easy. There's personal, and there's professional. LinkedIn isn't Tinder. Don't mix them up or you might cop it in the neck. And you won't even hear the bullet coming.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is owner of a creative events and activations agency and is a regular commentator on the life and style of Australian men.