Feminine wiles in the workplace

If women flirt to get ahead, does it reflect badly on them or on their work environments?

Published February 6, 2007 9:27PM (EST)

Have you ever flirted with your boss to get ahead? If so, you're like 86 percent of women, according to a poll in the British edition of Harper's Bazaar. The original poll asked questions like "Would you rather work for a male or female boss?" "Have you ever cried in the office?" and "Does the way you dress make you feel more powerful? If so, what works for you -- heels? A suit? A blow-dry?"

The results (based on the responses of 500 "professional women") are being picked up by places like Britain's infamous Daily Mail with headlines like "Forget Hard Work -- Women Would Rather Flirt Their Way to the Top."

Other supposed truths revealed by Bazaar, as described in the Daily Mail:

  • Sixty percent of women would rather have a male than a female boss;
  • Thirty-three percent pretended to be less intelligent than they actually are "to flatter a male ego and get ahead";
  • Seventy percent of women said wearing heels made them feel more powerful;
  • Almost 70 percent said they would "secretly revel in seeing another colleague fail."
  • I fear that prompting a discussion about men's and women's roles in the workplace may result in a "Salon Letter Writers Gone Wild" scenario that would put the reaction to "Girls Gone Wild"-related features to shame. Nevertheless, here's my question: If there were a comparable quiz for professional men, what would its questions be? Some suggestions:

  • Have you ever taken out your frustrations at a hard day at the office by grabbing a beer with your buddies?
  • Do you feel more professional and powerful when you wear a suit and tie?
  • Have you ever attempted to manipulate someone in order to get ahead?
  • Presented that way, those questions actually look pretty unremarkable. So is it really so surprising that putting on a pair of heels, which American women have been taught from birth to equate with power (whether it be sexual or professional), would make them feel more, uh, powerful? Sure, it's weird that wearing uncomfortable posts on the bottom of our feet makes us dominant in the boardroom or bedroom -- but is it any less logical than the sense of power and social status associated with, say, the necktie? Why does the admission that dress code matters say something more about women than it does about men?

    And as for camouflaging one's own intelligence to "get ahead"? Not to downplay my own smarts, but that question just seems dumb. Successful people, whether they're male or female, will wind up playing certain situations for their own advantage. Personally, I think playing down intelligence is not the best way to "get ahead" -- but I also don't think doing so speaks badly only about women themselves. (It's not like they're saying that they're playing dumb in order to not advance their careers.) Rather, it says something damning about a workplace culture in which women are punished for being seen as intelligent (and potentially threatening), and rewarded for not fully realizing their potential. That's definitely something that needs to be worked on -- but not for the reasons implied by the poll.

    As for enjoying watching other people fail, it's such a universal human emotion that there's a specific word for it: Schadenfreude. No real news there.

    If -- and this is a mighty big if -- Harper's results reflect the habits and feelings of the majority of professional women out there, I think there are better questions to be asking than the condescending headlines suggest. Instead of criticizing women for playing into sexual stereotypes in the workplace, we should look at the bigger question of why these stereotypes are regarded as worth playing into in the first place. Perhaps it's a reaction against one of the poll's other statistics: Seventy percent of women thought "socializing outside office hours brought them more influence at work," but 40 percent reported not being invited to "traditional male bonding activities such as a round of golf or a game of poker." It's enough to make you want to strap on some heels.

    By Catherine Price

    Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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