Sexual harassment on LinkedIn – an unaddressed problem

by May 12, 2020

Greater transparency needed about sexual harassment on LinkedIn

Sexual harassment on LinkedIn contributes to the gender network gap


Gregory Lewis, a Content Marketer for LinkedIn, wrote a post LinkedIn Data Shows Women Are Less Likely to Have Strong Networks — Here’s What Companies Should Do which talks about the gender network gap. This is not a new concept. Anyone who is involved with recruitment or women in the workplace initiatives understands well that this idea has been around for a while and impacts women’s careers.

Gender network gap

A gender network gap means that both organisations and women lose out. Women lose because they are not best positioned for career opportunities. Organisations lose because they don’t tap into the best talent. Recruiters and hiring managers gravitate to the talent that is available or has the right connections.

Research from LinkedIn tells us that the gender network gap is true across all geographies. It seems that women’s networks are just not as strong or diverse as their male counterparts. The research found that women are 14% to 38% less likely to have a strong network compared to men.

Network strength is calculated based on a member’s network size (i.e. number of connections) and openness (i.e. connections with people who aren’t connected to each other).

Likelihood to have a “strong network” is calculated as the percentage of men and women who fall in the top 20% of members by network strength in their country. The article suggests that women themselves are already actively seeking to address this gap. In fact it shows that women were 32% more likely than men to take courses related to networking on LinkedIn Learning last year.


Referrals and maths

One of the advantages of having a wide and diverse network is that it positions someone well for a hiring referral. It means that you are visible and recognised as someone who adds value. The post goes on to say:

“Because women seeking [leadership jobs] often face cultural and political hurdles that men typically do not, they benefit from an inner circle of close female contacts that can help guide them through those challenges.”

Men have a much greater chance to network with senior men because there are simply more of them. Women certainly face hurdles, but these are systemic and can be addressed. What also has to be factored in, is that the low-level of women in leadership roles means that the possibility to build close relationships with senior female “door openers” is less likely.


sexual harassment on LinkedIn


Data on sexual harassment on LinkedIn

However, the post does not mention another reason why women are reluctant to extend their networks and form a wider reach: concerns about online security. This is prevalent on all other platforms too. International studies show that generally between 50-80% of women experience online harassment, sexist or inappropriate contact, depending on location. This can include inappropriate comments on appearance, sexual images and innuendo, requests for dates or demeaning remarks related to gender. At the extreme end it can be threats of sexual violence.

We should not assume that this behaviour isn’t going on across LinkedIn because it is a professional platform. It happens in the workplace. Many women also don’t bother to report the more minor infringements. It should be relatively easy to dig out this data via moderation records to verify it either way. I was unable to track any information in the public domain so I put it to my network of LinkedIn experts. Even they struggled.

This is what they came up with:

Brynne Tillman LinkedIn Sales Trainer and specialist, referred me to this data from the LinkedIn transparency report 2019 detailed in Business Insider:


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Here the focus is on harassment and other content violations requiring moderation. Based on the numbers in this chart, if we aggregate the first three categories that would give 29.578 reported cases. So let’s be conservative and assume women make up 60% of that number having inappropriate experiences. That would mean that approximately 17.746 women could potentially have had a negative experience in the first 6 months of last year. Projecting for one year would be almost 35K women. I recognise that this is “guesstimating,” so it would be useful to understand what the real numbers actually are. We could then factor that data into why women might be more cautious than men when creating wider networks.

Anecdotally, I would suggest that this number is probably light. Many women have had some sort of negative experience on LinkedIn including what Andy Foote, LinkedIn expert, calls “unwelcome or creepy advances.” Here are the results of a short sharp 24 hour LinkedIn Poll Andy conducted starting 11th May 2020.  They are a good litmus test. I would add that many women who are subject to this inappropriate and invasive behaviour are not active on LinkedIn for this very reason, with the subsequent impact on their careers.

It is a much bigger issue than LinkedIn is willing to admit. 3Plus conducted a campaign in 2018 to make LinkedIn safer for women. Since then I am not sure how much progress has been made. I am not in the target demographic for this type of behaviour myself, yet even I experience inappropriate contact. When I report it I get no feedback.

Women and personal security

Over 80% of women experience sexism or sexual harassment in their daily lives. One of the factors missing from this conversation about women and wider networks, is the focus women need to have on their personal security. The first element is that women are raised to be cautious and defensive. If there is a problem, the burden is on them. Victim blaming is common. Their clothes were wrong, they flirted or they were “asking for it.” CEO Jeff Weiner is aware of the problem and addressed this in November 2019, calling upon members to “self-police.” I think any woman will tell you that doesn’t work. One member even changed her profile to that of a man to reduce the level of sexual harassment she experienced on LinkedIn.

There are also gender differences in how people view of online harassment as a public issue. Research suggests that 70% of women say they see online harassment as a major problem, compared with 54% of men. Younger women (18 to 29) – are especially likely to say this. More than 83% say it is a major problem, compared with 55% of men in the same age group.

Bigger issue for women

Women view online harassment as a problem more than men, because for them it is a bigger problem. Personal security is not something that men take into consideration in their daily lives to the same degree. They maybe more concerned about data protection and phishing scams. Whereas risk assessment and safety are part of everyday life for women and even young girls. 63% of women say that it’s important to feel welcome and safe online. In an era when psychological safety is the new corporate buzz word, LinkedIn needs to take that onboard.

Research from Jackson Katz, a specialist in gender violence, suggests that men only factor in strategies to protect their personal security into their thinking in one situation. Prison. Women never stop thinking about it. In research 3Plus carried out, we ran out of space to include all the strategies women created to protect themselves. So when it comes to creating a diverse and wide-reaching network, they are going to be more cautious.

So let’s look at the data and factor it into any discussions. When we don’t know we speculate. The moderation data for reports on sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour should be easy to identify and publish. As Business Insider mentions:

“For LinkedIn, disclosing both the volume of such harassment and its efforts to combat it are an important steps toward ensuring all users feel comfortable on the platform.”

Proactivity needed

It’s time for LinkedIn to be more proactive. They need to understand that their passive approach and relying on self-policing contributes to women choosing to keep their networks smaller and close. On their page for identifying abuse, inappropriate behaviour or sexual harassment is not listed only scams, spam and phishing.  The platform, albeit unintentionally, is part of the problem. At the time of writing there were only two women on their leadership team, which we all know is not enough to make a difference to the dynamic.

I wrote to the LinkedIn support team for Safety and Recovery, regarding data on sexual harassment (reference 200504-002262 ) and received the following response:  “Unfortunately this is highly sensitive data and we do not disclose such information.”

To quote Peter Drucker “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”


Improve the gender network gap in your organisation. Check out the 3Plus corporate training to manage Unconscious Bias 


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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