LinkedIn is meant to be a forum for professional discourse and digital networking. It’s ostensibly the corporate and working worlds’ version of Facebook — create groups, add friends, comment and like, and share your thoughts, all within the confines of “the professional sphere.”
Which is fine, except that the gray space between our professional and personal lives is massive, especially today. Many people form deep friendships with their coworkers; personal matters from the home that can impact work performance are often discussed and addressed in detail at work in an era of transparency; and work matters are often promoted on more personal platforms and vice versa (job listings posted to Facebook, family fundraisers shared in slack and posted to Linkedin, etc).
There’s a real discussion to be had about how to manage that, and this post isn’t about that. I only bring that stuff up as a backdrop for another, more insidious way that the personal sphere bleeds over into the professional: sexism, racism, and all other kinds of prejudiced attitudes that are both implicitly and explicitly expressed on LinkedIn on a daily basis and often thinly veiled behind a veneer of decorum and professionalism.
Let’s cut straight to the chase: here’s an article shared recently across my network about Erika James, the first woman person of color to become dean at Wharton. Here’s how it was presented:
And here are some of the top comments on the story:
As a quick aside, I contemplated removing names from this piece, but LinkedIn is a public forum, and everyone knows their activity is visible when they post or comment. That’s the whole point.
I hope you see the pattern with the responses I’ve highlighted above: they’re each aghast that gender and race were deemed important enough as part of the accomplishment to be mentioned in the announcement.
Here’s another one:
That one’s a little more overtly racist than the rest, but you don’t have to look far to find this kind of commentary on LinkedIn. Any time you see a story trying to celebrate the underrepresented in the white-collar world, you’ll inevitably find a stream of professionals bemoaning the need for qualifiers or expressing their concern over qualifications. And as often as not, these comments aren’t coming from entry-level employees — as above, they’re CEOs, “Senior Consultants”, and overall people who have been at this for a loooong time.
This isn’t news — racism and sexism are still major issues, and despite our best efforts to educate and inform, there’s a big portion of the world out there that still thinks they’re not worth paying mind to. And this isn’t a lesson on why the comments above are racist and sexist — there’s plenty of material out there on why it’s important to prop up black excellence, why feminism needs to be a driving force in our establishments, why race and gender WOULD IDEALLY not need to be mentioned when noting accomplishments, except that to ignore the oppressive legacy of patriarchal and racist institutions is to perpetuate them.
But what I want to highlight here is that some of these attitudes are so deeply embedded that to any reasonable person, “Just hope they are qualified” would seem like a wildly racist thing to say on Facebook, let alone on LinkedIn. But Susan still says it, potentially because she a.) doesn’t realize she holds those attitudes and is “just speaking her mind”, b.) realizes she holds them and just doesn’t care, she’s “just speaking her mind”, or c.) realizes she holds those attitudes but thinks she can subtly disguise them under the banner of white-collar professionalism and “just speaking her mind.”
It’s option C that worries me the most because that’s precisely how things start souring. It’s hard to call your boss out for lewd behavior due to the power dynamic, especially when it’s subtle enough to give you pause and other people tell you “that’s just the way he is.” Similarly, it’s easy enough to let the conversation devolve into what we see above when we’re giving folks the benefit of the doubt — they’re an educated, white-collar professional; how bad could what they have meant be?
There are three main things we could push for on a site like LinkedIn, none of them mutually exclusive.
First, keep calling these comments out. Some people may simply just not know better, but they’ll never know if you don’t address it. And for those who do want to use the platform to subtly push an oppressive or hateful agenda, calling them out has an added bonus — not only is the curtailment of hateful speech a valid end in and of itself, but transparency is a powerful thing on a public forum, and we can use it to our advantage. Most working people are more concerned with their reputations than pushing an agenda.
Second, keep educating folks at the top. If you’re in HR, a C-suite executive, or hold any kind of power regarding the trainings your employees attend, make sure you’re incorporating a lot of this stuff into them. It’s not “sensitivity” training; it’s “let’s take a hard look at the systemic issues we face today and the legacy of oppression that has shaped the lives of our employees” training. Personally, I’m pretty skeptical (to say the least) that more diversity at the top will fix some of the fundamental problems with our workplaces and professional discourse, but it’s a baseline at a minimum that we should strive for.
Third, and this one’s probably the most laughable: accountability. It’s worth a shot. Social media platforms like LinkedIn generally aren’t interested in policing hate speech. It’s a big task, and it doesn’t make them much money. But if we’ve agreed that this is the platform we’re using for our digital, professional interactions, we should hold it to the same standard that we hold ourselves and our work environment. Report cases when you see them, tweet at LinkedIn, and keep calling people out. It’s not an infringement on people’s right to free speech to call out bigotry.
The final (and infinitely more appealing alternative) is to leave LinkedIn altogether — its ability to make an impact for the better is limited at best. But I’ll save that for another post. :)