The recent heated discussion in the legal profession, or even the nation, is still on the controversial LinkedIn photo comment made by a Partner in a law firm, Alexander Carter-Silk at Barrister Charlotte Proudman. This action is prima facie another incident where sexism occurs too casually, yet it has more to tell about the current legal regime in promoting gender equality.
The incident and criticism followed
The incident began with Mr. Carter-Silk commenting Ms. Proudman’s LinkedIn picture as a stunning photo in response to her request to connect, which offended Ms. Proudman as an attempt to objectify female. She later published the conversation on Twitter in order to condemn and ridicule this sexist action. Opinions on the incident are very diverse.
This action has given Ms. Proudman support from some other feminists. They were in agreement with her response and thought that sexism still remains a very common problem in workplace, but only a few are aware of or caring about its occurrence. They thought female should be judged on their professional attribute first instead of appearance.
To the contrary, many more other people thought that what Mr. Carter-Silk commented was no more than compliment, though may not be absolutely appropriate to a woman he had never met. They were of the view that Ms. Proudman could just reply him in a sarcastic or humorous way. What’s more, publishing private conversation online has brought great worries on her professional conduct, especially as to confidentiality. Some people even said that they would never refer any case to her because of this imprudent behaviour.
Current legal regime and gender equality
It is obvious that gender equality plays an important part in the controversy. With two lawyers involved in the incident, we can look at what the law has to do with gender equality. The most apparent piece of legislation pertaining to the promotion of gender equality would be the Equality Act 2010 (Act). The Act is enacted with the aspiration to eliminate discrimination based on different grounds, such as disability, age, sex and sexual orientation. Direct or indirect discrimination based on any such grounds are made punishable by law. In terms of sex, extra provision has been made for the punishment against sexual harassment. Hence, the Act can be seen as a deterrent for anyone to treat either sex as less preferential or favourable to the other one, and perhaps achieve the ultimate goal of gender equality.
Implication of the incident
The Act can perhaps give some direction as to which side of the criticism sounds more agreeable to you. As a senior solicitor, it is believed that Mr. Carter-Silk is well aware of the Act, and what constitutes discrimination or sexual harassment under the Act. Moreover, Ms. Proudman did not bring this matter right away to the court, which shows that she too thought that what Mr. Carter-Silk had commented was far from constituting an offence under the Act. Therefore, this kind of comment does seem to fall within the permissible remit of the law.
Given that the statement raises no legal disagreement, Ms. Proudman may have been over-sensitive and taken the comment too seriously. Yet, there were people who shared the same view. Assuming that it is reasonable for them to hold such opinions, this reflects the law has limitations on promoting gender equality. From their perspective, a statement permissible by the law was a violation of gender equality, which means the current legislation cannot completely deter any sexually discriminative or, more specifically, sexist behaviour.
If the law is insufficient in bringing about gender equality, what then should the society rely on in order to achieve this aspiration? The answer is ironically the society itself. From the incident, it is not difficult to notice that sexual discrimination is now occurring not in its obvious sense, such as discriminative company policies or female being unable to vote, but a more subtle level on how both sexes are perceived by the opposite sex, for instance, female are judged by their appearance, while male are judged by their achievement or qualification in the contrary. These inherent connections made for both sexes are product of social normativity or, in simpler words, what the society shows and teaches us.
Just to name an example, it is common for the media to depict pretty females as iconic figures, whereas males are assessed by the number of properties or cars they own. While it is true that the law can be a propulsion of social change as some legal academics proposed, such subtle assumptions are difficult to be encapsulated by the law as mentioned. It is only through social progression can these assumptions be eliminated.
However, if you also agree with the majority that the comment was no more than a compliment, the law may still be effective to you in promoting gender equality. Yet, is what the majority thinks a replica of the social norm?