The image of the sexy secretary with the husky voice, skin tight pencil skirt and teasing smile is one of our most enduring workplace clichés. You only have to watch an episode of Mad Men to spot this age old female archetype.
She’s sassy, self aware and she always gets what she wants. It might be a stapler, a promotion or the new boss – with a switch of the hips, a bat of the eyelashes and an insatiable fondness for retrieving lost stationery, she rules the roost.
“I’m awfully sorry sir, I’ve dropped my favourite pencil right in front of your desk again. I am a clumsy clot, aren’t I? I’d best just bend over and pick it up in this incredibly impractical outfit. You don’t mind do you?”
Whilst shades of the office man-eater can be found everywhere from Marion Crane in Psycho to Cerie Xerox in 30 Rock, and even Pepper Potts in Iron Man, what relationship does she have to real life? Is workplace flirting a legitimate weapon in the fight for fair wages and equal opportunities, or is it just another Hollywood fairytale?
Is it ever okay to be the girl who flirts her way to the top?
No Strings Attached
Over the last five years, the general consensus on female flirting in the workplace has shifted rather dramatically. After an academic study entitled ‘Feminine Charm: An Experimental Analysis of its Costs & Benefits in Negotiations’ made headlines way back in 2012, a whole host of feminist scholars and experts lent their support to its findings.
The study claimed to show that flirting can be a positive tool for women in the workplace, just so long as it carries no real intention. In other words, less Joan Holloway and more Peggy Olson – for all of you Mad Men fans out there.
Whilst the inimitable Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks, never fails to earn admiring glances every time she sashays through the office, her flirting too often leads to the bedroom. According to the aforementioned study, this behaviour leaves a woman without power or influence – successful workplace flirting is all about using feminine charm to soften, rather than subdue.
Work Those Feminine Wiles
It’s surprising just how many female executives agree with the idea that a honeyed voice, a soft brush of the hand and a couple of giggly martinis at lunch is a perfectly acceptable way to influence male colleagues. The co-founder of She Negotiates, a US firm which aims to close the wage and leadership gap, is all in support of women using their feminine charms to fight for promotion.
After twenty five years as a commercial litigator, Victoria Pynchon is more than happy to admit that she has used warmth, playfulness and flattery to survive and prosper in a male dominated industry.
She said: “The stage on which we women are instructed to play, fingers waggling in our faces, is often so constricting it’s a wonder we can move at all. To deny ourselves access to any of our powers too often leaves us without any power at all. If [women] are comfortable expressing themselves in these dimensions, go ahead and use them.”
A Reasonable Alternative
The question is, what happens if you’re not comfortable expressing yourself in this way? What should do you do if, like many of us, flirting just doesn’t come naturally to you? If you ignore the myriad problems that advice like Pynchon’s is bound to conjure up, you’re left with the inaccurate assumption that all women are great at flirting.
If you really think about it, such an assumption is, itself, uniquely sexist. The image of the nubile young professional with long legs and a capricious brain, full of lipstick shades and mischievous comebacks, is just that – a fantasy. She exists only in the minds of advertising executives, Hollywood screenwriters and men who want you to think that your body is the only tool that you have.
As anybody who’s ever worked a nine-to-five week will know all too well, there’s rarely anything sexy about fighting for a worthwhile career. The seductive secretaries on television and in the movies might lounge around all day in cocktail dresses, but being a real life secretary or personal assistant is no easy task.
The Power To Choose
Your feet hurt, you’ve got ink stained hands, you’ve got to walk a mile to the photocopier fifteen times a day and your boss simply doesn’t care how big your breasts are – he just wants those daily reports on his desk by the end of the day.
Whilst there are certainly plenty of slimy Don Draper type bosses out there, who dream of exchanging bodily fluids for promotions, the vast majority of business executives just want their female employees to get the job done. A girl who turns up at work in stiletto heels and precedes to waste time curling her eyelashes and eyeing up department heads is not going to be respected on the same terms as her male colleagues.
It’s extremely hard for women to make a name for themselves in the corporate world these days. It doesn’t matter how many male dominated multinationals claim that the playing field is equal, the figures speak for themselves. The wage gap is still very much a reality, for women all across the board.
If it’s ever to be abolished, female employees need to grit their teeth and simply accept the fact that they’re going to have to work harder than their male counterparts to achieve the same goals. Once they do reach positions of influence and power, they need to turn around and smash to pieces all of the claims, stereotypes, clichés and outdated beliefs that still say women need to use their bodies to get ahead.
If they encounter a young woman who uses her sexuality to win power and acclaim, it is their responsibility to make her a friend and teach her how to climb the ladder with a real prize at the end.