I used to work with a woman who, whenever she approached a man’s desk, would lean forward to speak to him, presenting her cleavage like a gift from Victoria’s Secret. This tic annoyed the female staffers greatly. “What is she doing?” we’d whisper to each other in the bathroom, secretly worrying that she was gaining some intangible advantage over those of us who buttoned up our button-ups. Eventually, and awkwardly, a female manager spoke to her about appropriate attire. The V-necks turned into turtlenecks, but her tendency to caress men’s arms and bat her eyelashes remained, as did our paranoia.
The anxiety seemed justified, as most useful anxiety does, by the news. Last month, British consumer research site confused.com surveyed 2,000 men and women about workplace flirting. Of the female respondents, 21 percent said they’d flirted to receive preferential treatment. In October a further study, co-authored by a University of California, Berkeley professor and published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, confirmed that chatting up men gets women a better deal in zero-sum negotiations. The researchers asked women to greet used-car salesmen two ways—either with a standard “hello” or with a warm smile, a touch of the salesman’s arm, and the line, “You’re even more charming than over e-mail.” The flirts got, on average, 20 percent more taken off the price than the others did. (When there was a woman selling the same dented Volkswagen, results were more neutral.)
And if you turned on a morning show last year, you’ll remember British social scientist Catherine Hakim. She argued in her annoyingly provocative 2011 book, Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, that women should use every ounce of that “capital”—flirting, fashion sense, and charm—to get what they want.
The studies and books make for good headlines. The Guardian even ran a picture of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct with its article on the Berkeley research (because pantyless murderers are basically the same thing as office flirts). Yet they fail to take into account that in the past 30 years, office culture has shifted along with sexual politics. Our work pals—male and female—are our Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and after-hours socializing has moved away from cigar bars and into karaoke dives.
“Generations X and Y have brought more of a casual flavor to the workplace, in dress and in how meetings are conducted,” says Selena Rezvani, author of Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want. At the same time, sexual harassment policies have gotten stricter. This combo makes for an atmosphere in which flirting, as these studies describe it, is nonexistent.
Come on: No one in the history of the world has ever used the phrase, “You’re even more charming than over e-mail,” in any context other than a very low-budget adult film. The scenarios in these studies simply don’t reflect reality, and I’m pretty sure those overly friendly ladies got steals because the dudes on the lot thought there was something “off” and took pity. It’s hardly surprising that being affable and pretty is a boon for a woman; the same could be said for a funny, cute guy. In 2012 you can be feminine and still be taken seriously. So maybe this nefarious “charm” we use to get ahead is really just some women being ourselves—you know, nice.
My former co-worker and her breasts left for another job before we got to see if her flirting paid off in a promotion. I doubt it would have. People in our office, men and women, just thought she was weird: an outcast with excess erotic capital. I like to think she was an undercover actress, researching a part for Mad Men. Or a participant in a useless study about workplace flirts.