On the app where anyone can expand their professional network, offer job opportunities, or seek advice, it’s common for strangers to initiate conversations via LinkedIn messages to introduce themselves. In fact, the platform was originally designed for precisely this purpose.
However, a concerning trend has emerged, especially for women, as their inboxes are increasingly inundated with unsolicited advances from men who are using the platform as a means to engage with female professionals romantically.
Amelia Sordell, the founder of the marketing agency Klowt, shared an unsettling message she received from a man on LinkedIn: “Sorry to be direct, but what bra size are you? I need to get the mistress a bra, she’s good-looking. Not as nice as you though!! But her breasts are monstrous just like yours.”
Numerous women have reached out to Fortune to share their own experiences of such inappropriate messages. Sadly, this phenomenon is far from surprising, as recent research indicates that over 90% of women report having received at least one unwelcome message or romantic advance on the platform.
For Sordell, dealing with these weekly unsolicited messages has become an unfortunate byproduct of amassing a significant following of 140,000 connections on the platform.
Katie Taylor-Thompson, the managing director of the copywriting company Katie Lingo, noticed a significant increase in the number of “very, very explicit” messages during 2020, a period she describes as the “peak time for creeps.”
Many of the women Fortune interviewed had been receiving occasional inappropriate messages in the years leading up to the pandemic. However, the various lockdowns seemed to exacerbate the issue.
Taylor-Thompson offers a theory for this phenomenon: “They couldn’t go out and abuse women in the street,” or, with a touch of humor, she adds, “Maybe I just looked better than I did before because I had a professional photo shoot.”
Similarly, other women Fortune spoke to reported an uptick in unwanted attention after increasing their activity on the app. Unfortunately, despite the return to normality, there are no signs that these unsolicited advances are subsiding.
Taylor-Thompson clarifies that she doesn’t feel violated or abused by these messages, but they do leave her with a sense of discomfort and disappointment that there are individuals who target women in this way.
With the protective barrier of a screen (and sometimes even continents) separating her from the sender, Taylor-Thompson generally doesn’t feel physically threatened by unwanted attention—most of the time.
What danger lies in a message?
While Sordell and Taylor-Thompson often take a lighthearted approach to the tasteless messages they receive from various sources, they have both experienced a sense of genuine concern when local prominent professionals have initiated contact in their DMs.
It’s tempting to assume that the individuals behind these intrusive messages are young pranksters, spam bots, or located far away in regions where the #metoo movement hasn’t yet made an impact. However, the reality is different.
The conversation about bras that Sordell received came from a former NHS finance worker, while Taylor-Thompson was called “fit” by a former professional at Sony.
In both instances, the messages were reported to the employers of these men, and the women say both the NHS and Sony took action, although Sony did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.
Taylor-Thompson explains: “Many of the people who message me are from distant places, so I’m aware they can’t physically approach me. However, this particular individual was local in the U.K., and information about my location is easily accessible online. While it may seem unlikely that he would come to my house, if there was even the slightest hint of potential danger, it’s important to address it.”
Unfortunately, there was no way that Nadzeya Sankovich, vice president of communications at the wellness website Health Reporter, could block and forget about the man who started complimenting her appearance on the app just a few weeks ago—they work together.
Despite never having engaged in more than small talk at corporate parties, the networking platform somehow emboldened him to blur the lines between professional pleasantries and unwanted advances.
Now, she’s been forced to find alternative routes around the common areas of the office to avoid bumping into him. “Situations like this really get you frustrated and you start to feel a small but constant anxiety,” Sankovich adds.
Women are taking matters into their own hands
LinkedIn says unwanted romantic advances and harassment violate its rules and its policies outline the type of content that isn’t allowed on the platform, as a spokesperson told Fortune.
The company has also bolstered its safety features that help stop harassment in its tracks before a user can even see the offending content.
“If you experience any form of harassment on LinkedIn, please report it so our team can help protect you and others,” the spokesperson said.
Indeed, research has shown this isn’t an issue exclusive to LinkedIn—women are being hit on from every angle on social media. However, the risk specific to LinkedIn is that women will exit the platform leaving a void of female representation on the app.
About 74% of women have dialed back their activity on LinkedIn at least once as a result of the inappropriate messages they reported receiving, according to Passport Photo Online’s survey.
Ultimately, if female professionals reduce their presence on the platform, they may find it harder to connect with people in their field, build their personal online brand, and get hired.
However, most of the women Fortune spoke to aren’t shying away from using the networking platform any time soon. Instead, they’re taking matters into their own hands.
Sankovich confronted her colleague in person at the office, Sordell blocks and reports offensive users to LinkedIn and Taylor-Thompson continues to call them out across social media.
“I feel like if you’re going to be inappropriate, you forfeit your right to privacy,” Taylor-Thompson says.
To women considering leaving the app at the hands of predatory men, she advises: “These platforms can be really, really helpful for building your career. It’s been absolutely instrumental for me, so please don’t let a few bad apples ruin the experience.”
“I love LinkedIn, and I won’t ever allow people’s silly messages ever detract from my strategy—which is to post content on LinkedIn in order to grow my business,” Sordell defiantly echoes.
“You can let other people’s opinions and actions dictate how you feel, or you can accept that people can be assholes and go along your merry way.”