When I came in to meet with representatives of Goldman Sachs to talk about a job last year, the interview was rigorous enough. But at least I’d expected that. What took me by surprise was when my recruiter called me before I had even left the building to tell me that I’d made a mistake: I should have had my hair professionally blown out. That happened twice. But it’s hard to get a blow-out for an interview at 7 a.m., even when you live in Manhattan. I wondered what was up with that—at a place that’s so notoriously bottom line, why did all the women seem to be so worried about looking as hot as possible? I ended up getting an offer (many rounds of interviews and a few blow-outs later), which I turned down after finding a different job at a smaller company that seemed to suit me better—and where perfect hair and body-hugging outfits seemed to be less of a priority.
As I relived this tale recently over a glass of wine with my mentor, she offered some advice on female advancement in male-dominated fields. She told me to use my physical attributes—my greater-than-average height, my long hair, my looks (I’m a former model)—to my advantage. “Never give them [men] anything,” she said. “But let them think you might, and then get what you want.” Pretty interesting advice in the world we live in today. Recently, the United Nations #HeForShe campaign has drawn attention for its success shedding light on gender-equality issues. But it’s no secret that women are still experiencing discrimination in the form of workplace bullying, wage discrimination, and glass ceilings. You can’t blame my boss, or any of us, for looking for an edge, a way to get ahead. I had never really considered the kinds of things my mentor was suggesting. But what if her suggestion helped level the playing field? Her idea, as she explained it, isn’t to turn into a slut. It’s to flirt. To show that being feminine isn’t a setback—it’s an advantage. Showing your femininity—whether through the way you dress, walk, talk, smile, or “lean in”—will not on its own change the landscape of gender bias, but it could help knock in a few walls. Catherine Hakim, author of Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, believes that using “erotic capital,” which she defines as a combination of physical attractiveness (which includes beauty, sexuality, and fertility) and social attractiveness (measured by qualities like charm, liveliness, and style), is an effective way for women to advance. Hakim believes that women who lack other kinds of capital (economic, cultural, social) need to cash in on one of their other bargaining chips. She argues that the patriarchs of society have intentionally acted to devalue erotic capital, which she sees as a legitimate form of advancement.
There are even more authoritative experts pointing out there may be an advantage to be gained here. A University of California, Berkeley study from 2012 found that using flirtation can yield positive results for women, especially in negotiations. It’s easy to see how this makes sense. Men are encouraged to demonstrate stereotypical “male traits” like aggression and assertiveness, but women who demonstrate these traits are often punished or scorned as shrews. According to the Berkley study, women who are sexually assertive can experience negative repercussions, including social and economic backlash, if they come across as too aggressive. While men continue to capitalize on the benefits of society’s expectation and reward of male dominance, we lose out by not capitalizing on the true power of being female. So until pay is equal—and maybe even after it is – women should capitalize on their most valuable asset. Themselves.
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