Modern dating is a bitch. Between swiping right, deciding who pays for what and figuring out if you can still make it to your desk from an ill-advised hookup in Morden, it’s a lot of hassle for a hangover. At best, bad dates are a welcome upgrade from Brexit water-cooler chat. At worst, he goes guerrilla and finds you on LinkedIn.
For me, it was the latter. A year and a half ago I matched with a man on Bumble. He was an officer in the Royal Marines – tall-ish, dark and CrossFit Prince Eric handsome. I fell hard, but it ended when I moved to London and he went back to single-handedly saving the world. He deleted my number. 16 months later, he tried to add me to his LinkedIn network.
His message had the poetic clout of a tax return: “I had to get your attention somehow.” I should have known then. The reason he couldn’t contact me was because he’d factory reset me out of his life. He apologised for treating me badly and said he wanted to show me the man he really was. (He kept his word: he never showed up.)
Swapping swiping for professional social networking is on the rise. It’s nothing new, just our generation’s equivalent of being doorstepped by a fistful of tulips. “Modern dating can be challenging,” Meredith Golden tells me. She ghostwrites dating app bios for a living. “Not everyone knows how to use digital tools to their advantage.”
My experience just resulted in wasted perfume, a knock to my self-esteem and an open invite to the sisterhood of mugged off by a Marine. I got off lightly. Nicki Donohoe has experienced the darker side of LinkedIn dating firsthand. The hair and makeup artist from London regularly receives unsolicited flirty messages from men online. When she doesn’t respond, she’s told to “chill out” or “stop being moody”. Others threaten to hurt her. “One guy said he wanted to rape me in an alley and then kill my parents. He signed himself off as Harry Potter."
Other women report that men are using LinkedIn to screen them before dates. Nicki Rodriquez, a PR executive from Essex, says her ex-partner knew everything about her before they met. He’d looked into her professional networks before they were introduced by a mutual friend, then spent their relationship punishing her for not living up to what he’d seen online. “Men prefer to trawl through networking sites as it gives them more of an insight into your life than on a dating app. Women need to be clued up on how dangerous that can be.”
Some aren’t taking this misogyny lying down. In May of 2019, journalist Talia Jane went public with her experience of online sexual harassment. Her 21-part Twitter thread about a professional exchange turned predatory went viral. What started out as a conversation about job prospects escalated to a message that told her “there is so much cum on [her] face”. She told me her initial reaction was shock, followed by acceptance – women are conditioned to adhere to the “playbook of cishet men”, she explains.
Talia revealed his name online after he offered to donate $1,000 to a women’s organisation to protect his identity. She reported the behaviour to his managing editor. He was later suspended. “Facilitating systemic change is far more important to me than keeping my head down and playing along,” she says.
Nothing can justify tasteless male behaviour, but gender imbalance could help explain its rise. According to a recent study by Ogury, men outnumber women on Tinder nine to one. According to a July 2019 Statistica brief, however, men only make up 57 percent of all LinkedIn users.
Female freelancers can feel especially exposed when trying to grow their business. It’s not uncommon for women to turn up for a job interview or a casual networking date, only to realise they’re on a romantic one. “I’ve had a few marriage proposals on LinkedIn. I even went on one date from it,” Irish travel and motoring journalist Melanie May says. “I think men are using it to approach women because they can learn a lot about you for free, and there’s less competition than on dating sites.”
While nothing sinister happened to Melanie, connecting in this way has led to safety concerns for self-employed women. Freelance account manager Alice Cousins is often approached on LinkedIn by men outside of her industry. She explains: “I don’t know where this trend has come from. I think men feel more superior using LinkedIn over Tinder. But it can make women feel really uncomfortable because they can see where you work.”
Unsurprisingly, the levels of harassment on LinkedIn have led people to set up their own women-only networks. Organisations such as BAWE (British Association of Female Entrepreneurs) support self-employed women, with industry-specific networks such as DevelopHer helping to elevate women in technology. In 2017, Bumble set up Bumble Bizz, and in response to demand launched a women-only feature in March of this year. “At our office, we've all heard stories of women who've received inappropriate and unwanted messages on professional platforms,” a spokesperson said. “Bumble Bizz’s women-only networking feature was driven by our users. Women asked for a women-only option and we listened.”
When asked about safeguarding women on their platform, a spokesperson for LinkedIn commented: “We can and will permanently restrict members that abuse our policies. When a member reports a message or conversation, we investigate and take appropriate action.”
Still, the onus falls largely on women to protect themselves. The platform’s official advice is to “look out for profiles that contain profanity, use fake names or profiles that are impersonating public figures”.
It should go without saying that women shouldn’t have to self-censor their professional portfolios to prevent voyeurism or unwanted come-ons. But systemic male entitlement can’t be fixed by LinkedIn’s moderation team. The good news is the answer is surprisingly simple. If men stopped prioritising their egos (and their hard-ons) over women in work, we might just start endorsing their skills.