Sexual harassment on LinkedIn

What does it mean to be safe?

”Ask a man what his greatest fear is about serving jail time, and he will almost inevitably say he fears being raped. What can we deduce from the fact that jail is to men what life is to so many women?”

Soraya Chemaly, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger

This is a piece I originally did in early 2020 before Quarantine and COVID 19 having forced the world to stop. Yet it’s even more important now as working from home has shone the light on the digital gender divide, online gender-based violence, and the choices we are constantly faced with as women working online. 

For many men being on an online platform like LinkedIn is simple. It’s a professional platform they utilize to make connections and advance their careers.

For women, the truth isn’t at all so simple. Sexual Harassment of women online and offline isn’t a new topic but it’s to see that even professional platforms like Linkedin are still rampant breeding grounds for Harassment.

Last year we partnered with Hedone to do an article on Online Gender-Based Violence which you can find here and one thing is clear. The online world echoes the offline world and all the violence and harassment we face offline is rampant on the internet. 

As a people we have grown up with the misconception that abuse only means rape but what is Sexual Harassment defined as.

According to the Human Rights Commission; ‘Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behavior, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal, or written.

A single incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment – it doesn’t have to be repeated.’

Trying to see the extent of this harassment I started making a conscious effort to connect with people on LinkedIn and one thing was evident. 

There was a mixture of interactions and these were my results. A few men blatantly went from hi to calling you beautiful and asking to go for lunch. A few genuine job opportunities one that I am now pursuing with a female-led company and then the drastic ones who asked for your number straight from the first interaction and started using words like babe and would even persist sending messages when they didn’t receive a reply. 

According to LinkedIn: distribution of global audiences 2019, gender

During the survey period, 43 percent of LinkedIn audiences were female and 57 percent were male.

At first glance, this could mean absolutely nothing but when you take a closer look at the culture and growing rates of Harassment on LinkedIn you begin to notice several women who are more and more feeling fed up with the site and opting out instead.

According to human resources online, ‘Some women like Andrea Myles are taking matters into their own hands. Tired of the level of harassment on LinkedIn she took to pretending to be a man on LinkedIn so she could use the service in relative peace.’

Last year I also took a small survey with 5 groups of women averaging around 500 women and it was evident that almost all of them had dealt with sexual harassment at some point or another.

Below are a few of the stories the ladies had to share and some pieces of advice. Names have been kept anonymous to protect their identity.

”So this has been happening all the time on LinkedIn. I’m talking real grown men with influential positions in the corporate world. The scary part is that this even happened when my profile picture was 14 year old me (it was the only picture I could access when I created the account). At first, these men dm me talking about what they do and how they can help then boom they’re talking about their “needs”. 

The worst one was a perv that claimed to be a software engineer in America, single and a virgin. He said he was looking for a wife and he was 56 years old. He didn’t even say hie, he went straight to the point.”

‘’ Yes this has happened to me so many times, how to reply to them: 

“Your comments are inappropriate. I have no interest in communicating with you beyond discussing our areas of professional intersect. If you wish to continue interacting, you will have to communicate with me with dignity, decency, and respect.”

Beyond asking if you are well, there is no need for a person to know any other detail of your life. That information is on a need-to-know basis, and connections on LI do not need to know. 

Use my reply as a template. DO NOT TRY TO BE “CUTE”. Emojis are not necessary. Do not think you have to apologize for ‘misleading’ them. If it is not the attention you desire, there is nothing to apologize for. Do not use words/phrases such as maybe, perhaps, I’m not sure, sorry, I was hoping. Do not reply using a sarcastic tone. 


(i) *how you feel*: I’m uncomfortable with the direction this conversation is going in. 

(ii) *what they said that made you feel that way*: Calling me sexy is completely inappropriate. 

(iii) *what your boundaries are*: I have no interest in discussing any beyond business. 

(iv) *what the consequences are of violating your boundaries*: If you insist on speaking to me in this manner, I will report (and block) you.

The only way to deal with the fear is to speak to a trusted friend/mentor/counselor/HR or Labour Law Professional/lawyer. And get your support network into gear. 

If they try to block you from work it’s a difficult one unless you can prove it. i.e. the person threatened you and it’s in writing or you recorded the phone conversation’’

”I had an international PR company approach me, they were in South Africa and wanted to expand into Zimbabwe (this was about 2 years back), I was working the job I dreaded, a tad bit desperate and unsure but it was a dream job situation. Something felt off from the minute I was sent details about it, with much persistence from a colleague I gave in (tried to see it as an opportunity). I fixed up my media kit on my tablet, sent it via email and a meeting was set up. He was a quirky American very well vested in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa in general. I picked up that he had a wandering eye over the interview but again shrugged it off because I was tryna be professional. I got the role on a probation basis, he sent me a tonne of content-related work but I couldn’t keep up. One day at work a picture came through WhatsApp, I was too busy so I left it thinking arggghh more work! Later when I was settled I opened the message, but I did not open the picture because something told me it was a dick pic – I froze because I immediately knew what it was. I kept quiet for two days straight. He ended up texting sporadic and crazy emails apologizing for what had happened and said it was his mistress from Paris (he was very well-traveled and connected with top brands in SA), I kept my chill and I told him sternly I will not tolerate this kind of behavior or any kind on any other level in the future. At the time, I wasn’t in the right head space (work exhausted me) so I let it slide; looking back I should have taken abit more action BUT I have all the emails and chats backed up. He just went quiet after that and that was it. I don’t know what happened and quite frankly didn’t reply the last batch of emails.

I think as young women we need to pray about these things (literally) because in any workplace we are targets. It seems as if it’s something that we cannot avoid (I worked in the medical field and this guy placed his hand on my lower Abdomen area, he was a radiologist administering a scan because I wasn’t feeling too well and I think he saw it as an opportunity. Problem is I really liked him so again I let it slide, wrong of me because I should have reported it). I did however approach him in private and he brushed it off, I think at the time I was unsure and even though I approached him (and liked him) nigga had a wandering eye and threw snarky sexual comments to women as jokes (hence ladies pay attention to these things because predators actually mean what they say). He had a very good position in the clinical practice, handsome so it was easy to fall for him but looking back the guy was a serious pervert.

Lessons learnt;

1. Your gut/6th sense does not LIE!

2. DO NOT PLEASE PEOPLE – I grew up in a very strict and well mannered home so being rude was a no, hence I equally struggled saying no even when it made me feel uncomfortable. But you need to have thick skin in the working world because that shit is fucked up!


4. Report if you have to, even if your job is on the line you might actually save someone who didn’t have the balls to.

5. Pray about your job when you walk in because some people are seriously broken.”

“I have about 11500 linkedin contacts and I have had many men inbox me and say suggestive things. Same thimg on facebook and on whatsapp groups.

The easiest for me is to not respond and block them.

I agree with all the responses given and would add that don’t accommodate it or flirt then try to pull out of the convo. The man will think you are playing hard to get.

Pick a brand and stick to it. It is a small market and one slip up and that becomes your brand – discrediting all your hard work. People will think you got where you are only because of your bum work

Beyond the online advances we also need to be alert and reject any in person advances. 

I was watching a movie on the sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes at Fox & also looking at the metoo campaign and was just thinking of how many women don’t act on sexual harassment. We need to start speaking out!!!’’

’’Most of the time your gut/intuition is spot on trust your initial feelings about a man being extra nice(read as crossing the line). It sucks though but here we are. I’ve personally had to block men I met at meetings, or gave my business card too who would then call or text me in the middle of the night and try to take it further because they think they have a right to our bodies, time etc. I think we all have had some experience of this behaviour. Let’s not even go into the unsolicited body part pics that some have received. Just always have your boundaries and never bend them for anyone.’’

’’This has happened to me. Especially when they notice that your bio says you’re looking for work. They’ll ask for your number, ask you to lunch etc. I (unfortunately) took one lunch offer cause I thought it was going to be work related. I even carried my CV and everything only for the man to ward off any mention of work talk and he started calling me ba etc. I went home and blocked him. Now if someone asks me to lunch I ask if it’s business (because I freelance as a side hustle) or a social lunch. If he says it’s the latter, politely decline. If it’s the former, ask for specifics and send him an email (yes be extra 😅) outlining what you’ve agreed to discuss in the meeting. I guarantee you if he was playing, he’ll back out of the meeting. Otherwise, always keep your responses and interactions as short, formal and curt as possible on LinkedIn because the predators hiding behind big positions are PLENTY.’’

’’Went to a meeting with my boss once and the man (senior in his field) we were meeting looked at my card and when he didn’t see a mobile number asked for it. I looked him dead in the eye and said I don’t have a mobile work phone. When we stepped outside my boss asks me why I didn’t give him my mobile number. I told him men don’t understand boundaries when they think they like you and till the office gives me a phone and number, my personal number is off limits. The ride back to the office was uncomfortably silent but he got the message.’’

’’This is so true, it has happened to me before and just today I received an email from some guy asking me out and he sent me his pictures and a rose😳

Such emails I block and delete.

For those local that I meet at workshops I make sure I dont entertain them I strictly keep our conversations as business and make sure that person sees i’m not the flirty flirty type. Put on a lions face if need be so that these men don’t take you for granted. I have gained respect from it before. At times I smile get what I want then block and delete. 

If the person blocks you…i would say that’s not the end of the world…more and better opportunities will come. And when something is yours no one will ever block it or deny it from happening.’’

‘’Hi ladies

My advice to young professional women is be very clear why you are pursuing the career path that you are on. Because you are a woman in the business environment you already have a few things that work against you. No matter how hard you work, they will always be people who want to link your personal success to some male influence even though all your achievements are on merit.

Avoid flirting of any sort with business associates. Be very clear who you give your number and why you do. Keep all business interactions formal.

Some men have twisted ways of interpreting women’s actions. But at the end of the day we have control over who we allow in our circles.

One thing I have come to appreciate with time is that there is no man that can close me out of any business deal that I am qualified to do. They can try but position your skills in such a way that they are valued and needed. Create your own seat at the table.

Most of us disadvantage ourselves tolerating nonsense in the hope of creating professional ladders through links that have no business in our lives in the first place

Clarity of who you are, where you are going, what you want to achieve  is critical in weaning and wadding off unwanted attention. Also ladies listen and pay attention to the subtle advances and deal with them immediately’’

‘’I recently heard someone say, “We legalise what we cannot control.”

We (humankind) cannot control physical, sexual, emotional and mental abuse, so we were forced to create laws to determine the point at which the illegal has occured. How flawed the human heart is and how dysfunctional  the brain is, which can figure out how to send rovers to Mars but we still have toxic workplaces…’’

‘’As a woman, you have to be able to stand your ground all the time. Also you have to bear in mind that to an extent men gossip more than women. Any character slip up on the woman’s part is openly discussed men in different forums.’’

‘’Hi Amanda, yes this has happened to me a few times. I remind them this is a professional site and their line of inquiry is inappropriate. If they continue I delete them as a connection. Young women should value themselves and all their hardwork. It isn’t wrong to professionally communicate when you feel uncomfortable or disrespected.’’

‘’First observe personal space avoiding hugging every one.

By not entertaining sexual toned jokes from non friends of the opposite sex

By telling them you are not interested

Avoid getting intoxicated around them some people may cross the line when drunk or high

Knowing when to stop if you enjoy flirting’’

‘’YES, I was younger and curious so in a sense I did not immediately understand what was going on. I just stopped replying when I realized what was going on. Also the guy was really aggressive.

Your intuition is almost never wrong, if the conversation begins to feel personal, it probably is.

We all learnt communication skills but when all else fails just don’t reply or report the account for unprofessional behaviour. Reporting is anonymous so they won’t actually know it was you.

The moment conversations become personal, make sure you screenshot the conversations for future use. Like Thembi said, it’s the year of Monica Lewinsky done right. Always cover your bases.

I actually left LinkedIn because of this nonsense behavior’’

‘’Not on LinkedIn but I had an older male colleague try to get his sexual harrasment rocks off. At first I tried the usual avoidance tactics then I reported him to HR. When HR approached him he resigned to avoid a hearing. He told people he would ‘get’ me 🤷🏾‍♀  never heard from him again.

Colleagues were like ‘was it even that serious’ but those are women who think men are entitled to women’s time and attention. It’s all fun and games until you’ve had a man corner you in your office and refuse to leave without a kiss.’’

‘’When I was a waitress. There was a manager who liked me and because it took the smallest things to be fired I would smile and be nice to him. One day he gave me toilet duty and when I was done he came and stood in front of the men’s bathroom and I was trapped inside the only thing that saved me was a mop I threatened to feed him’’

‘’Yes it’s happened numerous times. I didn’t  understand it at first but when the guy was trying to be too close I usually said I have studies to do or help my parents or simply didn’t  reply at all. If I got harrassed too much via texting then I told it to my boss or showed it to my head  

Recognize  at first whether the person is taking up your personal space , digital abuse, trying to text too much maybe . Follow your intuition when you feel something is not right.

Say you have to complete the work immediately  and that you can’t  reply much. Maintain boundaries at first 

If we keep fearing that said person who threatens to harm our future opportunities.  You can leave that place or complain to your head or always have evidence maybe of when they made you feel threatened  ( last part I am only saying it in my opinion)

Keep the evidence! Anything that proves that they will harm you in the future, so that  you don’t  have to fear them.’’

Through talking to numerous women and experiencing the platform myself it’s evident that offline and online we are still years away from having a society where sexual harassment is a thing of the past.

Please share your story or a piece of advice in the comments below.

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