Layla* was just 18 when she stopped using LinkedIn after what she said was an “uncomfortable” encounter.
Warning: This article discusses sexual harassment
In 2019, she connected with someone on the social media platform through the “find nearby” option during a university networking event with the intention of building her professional connections.
“Previously, I thought like it was pretty innocent, nothing to worry about,” Layla said.
After she connected with the man, she felt she was starting to build her network.
“He just messaged me saying that he thought that I had really cool ideas and wanted to get to know me further,” she said.
After they talked further she realised he wasn’t interested in knowing her professionally, but “had more of an interest of knowing [her] romantically,” she said.
He started to compliment her appearance when they met in person and she felt like “he didn’t want to leave” her after they met for dinner.
“I wanted to get out of there as soon as I was in it,” she said.
As social media networking apps become increasingly popular, more and more women are coming out with horror stories, and experts say some users’ behaviour has become a real problem.
Migrant women more vulnerable to workplace harassment
Layla called her sister to try and get out of the dinner, but this led to the “most uncomfortable experience”.
“I was speaking Arabic, and I felt like he fully exoticised my language and was like ‘oh, that’s so sexy,'” she said.
“When we actually departed from the train station he was like, ‘bye habibi,'” she said.
Habibi means “my love” in Arabic and is often used as a sign of affection.
Ever since the meeting, Layla “stopped seeing the platform as a professional website”, even though it was really the only avenue to develop her connections, as a first-generation migrant.
“I’m very driven to build my career, I don’t have the privilege of having a father who knows someone in the industry who could help me out to get me into something like urban and regional planning,” she said.
“Both of my parents are working class and don’t have those kinds of white-collar connections.
“I thought that LinkedIn wasn’t doing its purpose in actually enabling me to extend my network, like I had initially intended to.”
Sara Charlesworth, who is a professor of work, gender and regulation at RMIT University, said migrant women were particularly vulnerable to advances in a work setting, including avenues like LinkedIn.
“Migrant women have long been identified as a vulnerable group in terms of workplace sexual harassment,” she said.
“Both in being targets of sexual harassment and also being much less likely to report or complain.”
Calling out unwanted advances on LinkedIn
In the past month, there has been a growing conversation over unwanted advances on LinkedIn happening in Australia.
When Nadia Owen, a meetings and special events sales manager, received a message from a man complimenting her eyes, she knew it was time to call him out.
“It just riled me up and it’s one of those things you just roll your eyes at and you just go ‘seriously, this is not the platform for this,'” she said.
“What’s been great about the post is that it has clearly resonated with thousands and thousands of people, both women and men, who say that times need to change and people need to change with those times.”
This was not the first time she had received this kind of attention over LinkedIn.
“It has happened many times before on LinkedIn, and they can vary from seemingly harmless comments about your looks to full-blown incredibly disgusting photos or sentences or suggestive word usage,” she said.
With recent discussions about workplace culture, sparked by Brittany Higgins’ sexual assault allegations in Parliament and Grace Tame winning Australian of the Year for speaking up about sexual abuse, Ms Owen said she aims to add to the conversation.
“Normally, you just delete it, you ignore the person and you block them and move on with your life, but on this particular occasion I chose to push back and question,” she said.
“It is a business-to-business platform. It is not appropriate for people to do anything other than that on there.”
‘Nothing done about it’ on LinkedIn
Under LinkedIn’s Professional Community Policies, users are instructed to “be professional” and “do not engage in unwanted advances”.
“We don’t allow unwanted expressions of attraction, desire, requests for a romantic relationship, marriage proposals, sexual advances or innuendo, or lewd remarks. Do not use LinkedIn to pursue romantic connections, ask for romantic dates, or provide sexual commentary on someone’s appearance,” the policy states.
Ms Owen has reported inappropriate encounters on LinkedIn and said she only received a “very generic statement” and nothing was done.
This includes her most recent incident where they said “it did not violate our Professional Community Policies”.
“LinkedIn’s response is a byproduct of the world that we currently live in, so I’m not surprised that they didn’t see it as a problem,” she said.
A LinkedIn spokesperson told the ABC, “Upon investigation, we found that the member was sent the message ‘it did not violate our Professional Community Policies’ due to an error on our end.”
“We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused to the member.
“We might not always get it right, and when we don’t, we’ll do a second review and take quick action.”
Professor Charlesworth said there was “a real duty of care that LinkedIn has as a platform”.
“There is a reluctance of the large social media platforms to take responsibility for monitoring the behaviour of their users,” she said.
‘Unwanted advances’ on LinkedIn happening around the world
Professionals have been calling out people making advances and flirting with them in countries like India, Pakistan and Malaysia.
According to a survey of around 1,000 Malaysian women last year, 56 per cent of women have experienced at least one form of gender discrimination in the workplace.
That included comments or questions about their marital status or plans to start a family, or being asked to perform certain tasks that are not asked of men.
Training Material Developer Nithiyah Sinnathamby is from Seremban, Malaysia and has been using LinkedIn since 2014.
She has recently received “unwanted messages” that felt “unprofessional” and decided to speak up about it.
“I wanted to post this experience to create an awareness that LinkedIn is a professional network and one should not misuse it,” Ms Sinnathamby said.
She said this makes her feel “frustrated and annoyed”, and does not want it to happen again.
“I believe that this is happening to other ladies in the network and I would like to urge them to reveal this kind of approach as well so that it does not repeat,” Ms Sinnathamby said.
“We strive to maintain a safe, professional, and respectful community for our members,” a LinkedIn spokesperson told the ABC.
“We do not tolerate any form of harassment and have introduced new tools in this space to keep our members safe. That includes strengthening our Community Policies to be even clearer on our position on harassment and romantic advances on LinkedIn.
“We encourage all members to let us know if something doesn’t feel right and we will quickly investigate and take action to enforce our policies.
“We know there’s work to be done.”
*Layla is a pseudonym used to protect her identity.