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Image courtesy of Death to the Stock Photo

Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. That’s the term to describe what happens when you first learn about something and then you start seeing it everywhere else. The experience can also be described as “frequency illusion.”  An example would be learning about a book your friend just finished reading and then seeing a poster for the book on a transit ad. Or hearing the book be talked about on a podcast.

I recently experienced an instance of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon when I kept seeing stories about Charlotte Proudman in my news and Twitter feeds. Charlotte was in the headlines after she went public with a compliment she had received from a male colleague on LinkedIn. It wasn’t seeing Charlotte’s story so frequently that made it a Baader-Meinhof phenomenon; after all, a story is often picked up by various news outlets leading it to pop up on different channels.

What made this instance stand out to me so much was that shortly after first reading about Charlotte’s story, I too was sent a “complimentary” note on LinkedIn.

Some Background

Earlier this month, Charlotte Proudman, a 27-year-old Barrister from England shared on Twitter a private message that she had received from a  57-year-old male lawyer, Alexander Carter-Silk.

In his message, Carter-Silk wrote about her “stunning picture !!!!” and went on to say, “you definitely win the prize for the best Linked in picture I have ever seen.” Proudman replied that she found his message offensive and that she was on LinkedIn for business purposes and not to be approached about her physical appearance. After posting a picture of the exchange on Twitter, other women shared about their experiences as well.

Not every message was one of support

As can be expected, not every reply Charlotte received online was positive. The Daily Mail a national tabloid in England, referred to Proudman as a Feminazi, not once, but twice, on the front cover of their paper. Daily Mail Cover calling Proudman's supporters Feminazis

Daily Mail

Daily Mail Cover calling Proudman a Feminazi

Daily Mail

On Twitter, both men and women accused Proudman of over-reacting and trying to create publicity for her own personal gain:

The backlash extended beyond Twitter as Proudman began to receive death threats.

This morning I opened my email account to find another death threat. The sender said they knew where I live and work. They said they would be waiting. Within two months they would cut off my head and place it in a plastic bag, and my head would be their prize possession.

The Daily Mail‘s Jan Moir wrote an article in which she argued that Proudman was anything but a victim. Why? Because when was the last time anyone carried out an actual threat they made online? Yes, that was Moir’s reasoning.

Mary Kenny of The Belfast Telegraph wrote a column where she expressed her opinion that Proudman over-reacted to Carter-Silk’s message:

She could have rebuffed Carter-Silk’s remark without going the full nine yards. Perhaps she’s a spoilt young lady who has seen too little of genuine suffering and real victimhood?

In an op-ed she wrote for The Guardian, Proudman says that she will not let herself be deterred by the abuse and threats:

But the abuse and threats will not deter me. They perfectly encapsulate what is wrong with the way women in the workplace are viewed. And I am more determined than ever to fight for progressive social causes. I hope that the backlash I have endured will not deter other women from challenging sexism. No one should be silenced for fear of standing up for what they believe in.

How would I react if I were in Proudman’s shoes?

To be honest, I didn’t really pay much attention to Proudman’s story when I first came across it. I read about it on various blogs and read some of the tweets. In all of the years I’ve been on LinkedIn, I’ve never had an experience similar to hers.

It just so happened that around the time I was reading about Proudman’s experience, I received an invitation on LinkedIn to connect with a man named David. I didn’t know him, but I checked out his profile and noticed we had a mutual connection in common. I accepted his invitation and didn’t give it a second thought.

I awoke the next morning to a new private message on LinkedIn.

“What a nice sparking (sic) smile you got here i wouldn’t trade that for anything else. I was connecting with my business here you caught my attention with your beautiful smile… haha . Hope you will give me the change (sic) for us to know each other better. Can i have a conversation with you? hope to hear from you son, have a lovely weekend.”

This was a few mere hours after I had first read about Proudman’s experience. Could there be a better example of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?

I was both surprised and disappointed by David’s message. I had never received anything like it and never really expected too. I don’t ever want to be approached (online or of) because of how I look. I want someone to want to connect with me because they’ve seen something in my experience and work history that makes them see that I can be of value to a project.

I connected with David even though I hadn’t met him in real life. I often do that as I believe that LinkedIn is a great networking tool and you never know which connection is going to lead to interesting work. Now I’m questioning that approach and that makes me quite angry. I shouldn’t have to change my online habits to avoid dealing with messages like David’s.

Two days after sending his original message, David sent me the exact same text in another message:

Creepy message on LinkedIn

I didn’t bother replying to him. I blocked him, thereby ending his ability to contact me on the platform. For all I know, “David” could have been a spam account or even a bot. Regardless, those weren’t messages I wanted to keep receiving. 

I haven’t had to deal with this kind of behaviour since my video game playing days. Still, back then it was somewhat expected to hear sexist and crude remarks made in that environment. Now, as a professional, I’m just left feeling disappointed and disillusioned. As a woman online, I don’t want to receive compliments based on physical attributes, I want to be respected.

Have you ever encountered any sexist behaviour online? If so, how did you deal with it?