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Is it ever OK to flirt in the workplace?

Posted Oct 01 2012 6:00am

Words: Meryl Cubley

When we reach the utopia of 50% men and 50% women in the workplace – for now statistics show that 70% of middle management are still men; as are 83% of senior management – the question: will it ever be ok to flirt at work? may become more important than ever. Feminism and flirtation are by no means unlikely bedfellows. In fact new findings issuing from the University of California, Berkeley and the London School of Economics suggest that the ‘theatricalisation’ of femininity can prove one of feminism’s chief weapons.

The study points out that ‘feminine wiles’ can boost economic benefits, improving the prospects of brokering success by up to a third – yet in comparison, Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital , published as affiliated by the LSE, explores that whilst erotic capital is growing in importance in today’s highly sexualised culture, ironically, as a ‘feminine’ virtue, it remains sidelined. Dr Catherine Hakim, listed at the time as a Senior Research Fellow of Sociology at the London School of Economics states that ‘Honey Money is a call for us to recognize the economic and social value of erotic capital, and truly acknowledge beauty and pleasure. This will not only change the role of women in society, getting them a better deal in both public and private life – it could also revolutionize our power structures, big business, the sex industry, government, marriage, education and almost everything we do.’

And yet, the book received scathing reviews – Jenni Russell, a reviewer for The Sunday Times, called it “repetitious, rambling, contradictory (and) ill-argued” – adding fuel to a fire that concerned Dr Hakim’s employment by the LSA as ‘loose’ – since it was found out she had not actually worked there since 2003.

Whether we agree with Catherine Hakim or not, one thing is clear from this new research – and that is that self interest is key. Simple ‘friendliness’ will not get any of us who choose to follow this route anywhere says the study. For where flirtation with a selfish end was found to be powerful, friendliness was regarded as weak. Madeleine Albright, the female secretary of state and inspiring woman extraordinaire is referenced in the study as confessing to flirting in order to succeed. Although the full research will not be released until later in October, director Dr Laura Kray has remarked that: “Feminine charm is a strategic behaviour aimed at making the person you are negotiating with feel good in order to get them to agree to your goals.” Kray told the National Post, “(By) Just being friendly, women run the risk of people thinking they’re pushovers.” So why does flirting work? Per Kray, it’s “a signal of dominance and confidence and self-regard.”

Whilst being perceived as too masculine is disapproved of in women, failure to meet masculine norms means that they are considered less competent. Ha! It’s such an easy game isn’t it – getting ahead in the workplace? However, as much as we may wish for an overnight change in the working world of Britain, it is clear that whilst we are pushing for that to happen – in the meantime we must stand up and be counted – and fight for it. A little light flirtation, says Kray allows women to emulate male behaviour, whilst creating an alluring diversion.

There will of course, be feminists around who are never going to be happy with the bolstering of the facades of femininity. Yet Judith Butler , who uses performativity in her analysis of gender development, states that gender – like social interaction at large – is never without its theatrical elements, and so we underestimate their impact at our peril. The human condition naturally consists of some performance. I for one do not intend to be a formulized into a robot – whether in the work place or my personal life.

Victoria Pynchon, an attorney-mediator and arbitrator, principal in the She Negotiates Consulting and Training firm and writer for the Forbes.com legal blog On the Docket, recently wrote that women who flirt get ahead; and she took quite a battering from regular readers for her trouble. The main problem seemed to be that the longer we allowed the workplace to continue ‘pandering’ to male needs, the longer we would have to fight for equality. What I find difficult to understand is that these people seem to be missing the fact, as already mentioned, that until we have equality, we have to fight with all of the tools we have. If flirting is one of them, then why the hell not? Pynchon makes it quite clear that she has never thought of herself as beautiful and if we take on board her ‘conventional’ sense of what beauty or even sexual allure is, we see that Pynchon is 60 years of age and whilst attractive, carries no illusions. She simply tells it like it is: “Listen, I was never a beautiful woman by beauty magazine standards. Doesn’t matter… You can flirt your backside off at 60 (yes, I’m 60) and get what you want. My mother – also no raving beauty – and god bless her – 88 – she has, count ‘em – three men who drive her to the store and doctor appointments, fix her small appliances, and take care of her pool and her yard.

“The key is…” she continues, “looking for the good rather than the bad (in people) I’ve never known anyone who was so thoroughly repugnant that I couldn’t find something to love in them.”

So, let’s get real and point out to those still in the dark that tactical warmth, a little playfulness and flattery on a person’s good points – and showing a superficial or casual interest of liking is not a blatant sexual advance! Like ‘being a gentleman’ or a man known for his ‘charm’ and ‘sophistication’ – terms that also seem to enrage certain feminists – It is possible to enjoy this civil and enjoyable communication with one another, without it regressing to the 1950’s. Frankly what a boring world we would live in without it!

Still it is clear to me that there is a LOT of animosity and fierce debate on and around this topic. Take a look at ‘I use my sexuality to get ahead at work’  by Mélanie Berliet at Jane magazine online and you’ll see what I mean. Now granted, Berliet does end up dry-humping a guy at work, so it’s not really the best example of flirting at work I could have chosen. But it seems to me that her sexual encounter is based more on the fact that she fancies the guy in question – rather than because she is trying to further her career. Does she get the project, yes. Would she have got it if she hadn’t dry humped him in his office (the chicken-soup metaphor euch! makes this piece worth reading if nothing else) the answer is also yes.

In Ms.Berliet’s view a good work flirt is agreeable and energetic and does whatever it takes to project ease and to foster comfort. She goes on to rather spoil it all by the following quote: “I certainly didn’t intend to go from gratuitous complimenting to doing it with clothes on, but I did nothing to stop that progression either. I was focused on pleasing, you see. And I was actually enjoying myself for the most part. When Top gently patted his lap and invited me to sit on his crotch, I did acquiesce. I’m no prude, and I figured I had nothing to lose…’

Later on Berliet seems uncomfortable with what occurred and finishes with: ‘My new rule? Nurture the hope, but never follow through.’ In general I enjoyed reading the piece though it would seem that some clarification is needed as to what is considered flirting at work – but what really shocked me were the comments by readers. Littered with aggressive expletives such as fuck you – and a general wave of hatred, it isn’t until later that there are comments from women who can see what Berliet is trying to say: “As a card-carrying human, I’d argue that there’s no way to separate our sexuality from who we are entirely, whether at home, at the grocery store, or at work.” Many women seemed to have got bogged down with the fact that she has slept with someone at work, which granted may or may not have been such a great idea, but I had to ask: Would they have reacted the same way if their friend had told them they had an encounter with a colleague?

Most also thought that Berliet was advocating flirting (and sleeping) with colleagues in order to get ahead; as a way of leapfrogging hard work, responsibility and dedication. It seemed clear to me that she was not doing this for even a moment. The vehement opposition to Berliet was then completely poisoned when people started to talk about the fact that they were not pretty/attractive/popular like Berliet and therefore they couldn’t flirt and would get laughed out of the office and so they were at an immediate disadvantage. This is rather a poor show as far as I’m concerned and simply subscribes to the male stereotype of women as catty/bitchy/jealous. Well done on that girls. As already outlined with Victoria Pynchon, you don’t have to be whatever ‘conventional’ or ‘accepted’ pretty is in order to flirt! It doesn’t have to be full of sexual overture! And whatever happened to beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway?!

It seems very clear that this is a very thorny issue with strongly held opinions on both sides. But I have no problems admitting that I’ve definitely benefited from flirting to push the odds in my favor and I don’t see it as a problem. I don’t rely on it; I rely on my brain and talent. I don’t see it as ‘feminine wiles, ‘I see it as a strong, independent and sexy spirit that helps me survive and prosper and frankly, makes life just that little bit more interesting and fun.

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