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For women in the workplace, using sex as a tool turns out to be a career drag, new study suggests

August 1, 2005

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Breaking the taboo on researching sex on the job

Aug. 4, 2005 - It was the buzz of last year's hit reality series The Apprentice: eight beautiful young women who were competing against eight attractive young men for a $250,000-a-year job blatantly used their sexuality to gain an advantage over the men, who seemed not to know how to respond.

As a reporter for the online magazine Slate put it, the men were "pummeled so badly that Trump was forced [to mix] the genders to give the four remaining men a fighting chance. No one disputes that the women's conduct is effective...but the debate rages over whether it's appropriate in today's business world."

While the show demonstrated that there was no shortage of views on that question, (the women's behavior inspiring more than 200 articles in the popular media), it turns out that the use of sexuality in the workplace has evoked surprisingly little research. As the authors of a new study put it, "The study of sexuality is mystified and has largely been suppressed...Research on sexuality at work is scant."

The principal exception, they add, is research on sexual harassment.

In a study to be presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (scheduled for Honolulu, Aug. 7-10), a group of researchers from Tulane University seeks to begin to demystify the subject with an investigation of the use of sex among a sizable group of female MBA graduates.

They find that, the apparent successes of the Apprentice women notwithstanding, "the more women attempt to use sex as a tool to get ahead at work, the lower their tangible career outcomes -- fewer promotions and lower salary."

"Using your sexuality to get ahead will backfire," comments Arthur P. Brief, who carried out the study with Tulane research colleagues Suzanne Chan-Serafin, Jill C. Bradley, and Marla B. Watkins.

In addition to suggesting that sex is counterproductive as a workplace tool, the research reveals the practice to be associated with lack of self-esteem and with women's acceptance of what the researchers call "benevolent sexism" in the workplace.

Benevolent sexism, the study explains, encompasses the view that women "ought to be protected and put on a pedestal...On the surface, benevolent sexism might appear to be a good thing since it comprises 'positive' attitudes suggesting that women are superior to men at least in some stereotypically feminine ways...But, benevolent sexism comes at a cost, it appears...for benevolence confirms the vulnerable and weak stereotypes of women."

Comments Prof. Brief: "While there's nothing wrong with men's being courtly, our findings suggest that women should be wary of a place where men make a great show of opening doors for them or lifting boxes that aren't particularly heavy."


The negative relationship of self-esteem and career success, the authors further note, parallels many research findings related to sexual activity among adolescents. As the study puts it: "Girls who have low self-esteem are more likely to believe that their sexuality, as opposed to their other assets, is a valuable resource they can offer in exchange for whatever they desire."

A similar dynamic, the new research suggests, is at work among highly educated adults in job settings.

The study's findings derive from anonymous survey responses from 164 female graduates of a university MBA program. About 80 percent of the respondents were Caucasian, and the remainder were from a variety of ethnic groups; the average age of the respondents was 43, and they had worked an average of about 12 years since receiving their MBAs.

The participants' self-esteem and views on benevolent sexism were measured by questionnaires developed earlier by other investigators.

To measure sex as a tool, the researchers began by conducting a focus group of three professional women, who were asked to describe ways in which they had used sexuality, or had seen other women do so, for the purpose of achieving work-related outcomes. The 43 behaviors that emerged were whittled down to 10 by five female MBA graduates on the basis of how well the items fit the definition of using sex as a tool. The study's 164 respondents were asked to indicate how frequently they had engaged in each of the behaviors on a scale of 1 (never) to 7 (always).

Half the items were general statements about flirting and sex appeal, while the other half described quite specific physical behaviors. Some items -- and the percentage of respondents who said they did them to one degree or another -- were as follows:

-- I flirt with people at work: 36%

-- I emphasize my sexuality while at work by the way I dress, speak, and act: 20%

-- I draw attention to my legs by crossing them provocatively when in meetings or sitting with a group of men at work: 12%

-- I massage a man's shoulders or back white at work: 7%

-- I purposely let men sneak a look down my shirt when I lean over a table: 3%.

Eighty-one respondents (49.4%) indicated that they had never engaged in any of the 10 behaviors. Even among the 83 who acknowledged engaging in them, the typical response pattern indicated only infrequent use of sex as a tool.

The highest score for all 10 items was 32 out of a possible maximum of 70 (7 X 10), which would have been the total for someone who engaged in all ten behaviors all the time.

Interestingly, too, use of sex as a tool did not correlate significantly with age or number of career years.

Although the group was a far cry from the vixens of The Apprentice, even the limited use of sex as a tool was associated with significantly poorer career outcomes, as evidenced by lower current job incomes and fewer promotions achieved since receiving the MBA.

Thus, when women were asked to check off bracketed income ranges, the average for the "never" group was the $75,000-$100,000 range, while for the others it was the $50,000-$75,000 range. The women in the "never" group had been promoted an average of about three times, and the remaining respondents an average of about twice.

Concludes Brief: "There wasn't a lot of this kind of activity, but, when it comes to sex as a tool, a little seems to go a long way -- and in the wrong direction."

The Academy of Management, founded in 1936, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has close to 16,000 members in 90 countries, including some 10,000 in the United States. The academy's 2005 annual meeting will draw more than 6,000 scholars and practitioners to Honolulu for more than 1,000 sessions on a host of issue relating to corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related subjects.

Media Coverage:
ABC News / Good Morning America. A Provocative Study. (Tuesday, August 09, 2005).
American Public Media. Marketplace Interview with Prof. Arthur Brief. (Monday, August 08, 2005).
Associated Press. 08/10/2005. Female Office Flirts: Read this Study. (Wednesday, August 10, 2005).
Newhouse News Service. August 11, 2005. Sexy Clothes: A New Tulane University Study Offers a Warning. (Thursday, August 11, 2005).
USA Today. Study says flirtatious women get fewer raises, promotions. (Friday, August 05, 2005).


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