Using Sex Appeal to Get Ahead?
By Chelse Benham
"People who are wealthy use their wealth. People who are smart use their
intelligence. Why shouldn't women use their good looks or femininity (to get
ahead in the workplace)?" That statement from a corporate lawyer in “The Wall
Street Journal” article “In Today’s Workplace, Women Feel Freer To Be, Well,
Women” by Ellen Joan Pollock.
Is it justified or professional to use sex appeal, flirtation or alluring behavior to
maneuver to the top? There is a growing shift in attitudes between different
generations of women now occupying the same workplace. Older generations of
women entered the workplace pioneering reform regarding gender inequality,
discrimination and sexual harassment. A woman wanting to be taken seriously
dressed like her male colleagues, carried herself professionally and viewed work
as a sex-free zone. Sexual self-expression was completely forbidden.
The derogatory phrase “Coffee, tea or me?” was used to disparage a woman’s
ability to achieve career success without sleeping her way up the ladder. Women
of the 1960s, 70s and 80s fought hard against sexist language and sexual
harassment to gain ground and equality in the workplace. National debate raged
about the objectification of women in the media, at work and in politics. Over the
years, numerous examples of the feminist perspective were dignified with such
shows as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ “Murphy Brown” and Susan Faludi’s
book “BackLash.” The issue of sexual harassment was brought to the national
stage when Judge Clarence Thomas went before the Senate for confirmation
hearings, only to face charges of sexual harassment from Anita Hill.
As a result of Hill’s courage, sexual harassment was brought to the foreground
and by the mid-1990s there were prominently posted laws and mandatory
workshops on sexual harassment throughout businesses all across the country.
However, while the workplace environment has become more guarded and
cautious regarding social behavior, there has been a paradigm shift. At the core,
is the issue of strategy. In place of actual applicable experience, one woman may
use feminine charm while another may use intellect to gain ground at work. Is it
an either/or situation? What level of self-preservation does a woman need to feel
secure without the fear of being overly sexual or oppressively conservative? How
much room is there for self-expression in the workplace?
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, feminists had successfully argued that sexual
harassment comes in two forms: a “quid pro quo” equal exchange or substitution
offer (or threat) of sex and a “hostile workplace environment,” meaning a
workplace made intolerable by unwanted sexual expression. The theory put forth
the idea that, in a workplace where men have all the power, we must always
suspect that women do not consent to sexual behavior within that environment.
Because workplaces have greatly shifted to include more women than ever
before, the idea that women are “always” put into ethically compromising
situations with superiors is not accurate, perhaps it never was. Some
opportunistic women may rely on charm to diminish barriers into management.
Consensual fraternization, along with sexual self-expression, is very much apart
of today’s work culture.
In the 1990s, the television comedy “Alley McBeal” epitomized pop culture
attitudes of the young-upwardly-mobile or “Yuppies” just entering the workplace.
Sexual expression replaced sexual reticence making innuendo a part of the
workday milieu, from dirty jokes to discussions of one's personal life to
aggressive flirting to romance. Young women (and young men) seem more apt to
use their sex appeal to form connections with superiors and advance through the
chain of command. This idea has been demonstrated recently with the television
show “The Apprentice,” where Donald Trump chastised the women participants
in one episode for using overt sexuality to gain an advantage.
In “The Wall Street Journal” article, Patricia Ireland, president of the National
Organization for Women, calls flirting “a short-term strategy in this culture. In this
culture attractive means young. And you will only be conventionally attractive –
that is, your flirtiness will only be considered interesting and intriguing, rather
than pathetic – as long as you are still young and conventionally attractive.” She
adds, “flirting confuses, at best, the people you’re working with, and at worst
encourages – perhaps entitles – them even to engage in behavior you may not
It is not easy to stamp the label “Bad” or “Good” on fraternization when the
behavior is between consenting adults. Initially, it might seem unfair or unethical
for a woman to use her sex appeal to acquire a promotion. However, put into
context with other less impressive maneuvering between men, where “golf
buddies” get appointed as vice president, it hardly seems unusual.
Embattled older women have adopted a “much more somber business
demeanor” according to Pollock. Older women are “just a little sterner than I think
younger women are,” says Michelle Brancheau, 28, in the article. “Charm is just
one tool in your tool kit. Older women don’t use charm as much. They probably
use pure brains and their position of authority or whatever.”
Perhaps that is the difference, the lack of experience that leaves younger women
feeling at a disadvantage so they fall back on other assets. Television portrays
beguiling young women achieving ostensible financial security through sexual
promiscuity. This image reinforces the message that it is fine to behave in a
sexual way to obtain professional success. Unfortunately for the older women
who suffered on our behalf, pop culture seems less willing to stifle this prevailing