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Masculine work environments encourage women to flirt – but also exact a stiff price for it, study finds

August 15, 2013

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, 212-233-6170,

Aug. 15, 2013 - Does flirting help women get ahead on the job? Research presented recently at a major management conference reinforces previous doubts that it does - and, in the process finds that, when it comes to responses to flirting, gender is a wayward guide.


According to the new research, workplace cultures with masculine qualities, such as aggressiveness and assertiveness, encourage women to flirt but also exact a stiff price in everyday mistreatment of those who do; in contrast, a workplace with stereotypically feminine values offers no such encouragement but is forgiving when flirting occurs. 


In the words of the paper, which was presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Aug. 9-13 in Orlando, Florida), "women who engage in strategic flirtation tend to experience subtle but persistent forms of mistreatment from their co-workers. Masculine organizations encourage the use of strategic flirtation, but we found no evidence that organizational masculinity shields women from the associated everyday mistreatment…[But] the more an organization displays characteristics and behaviors stereotypically attributed to the female gender, the less strategic flirtation is related to everyday mistreatment." 


"Workplaces with high-powered, masculine cultures don't come out of this research covered with glory," comments Alexis Smith of Oklahoma State University, a co-author of the study, which focuses on women attorneys. "These are firms that encourage employees to aggressively use their assets, whatever they may be. Since it stands to reason that for women this will mean leveraging their sexuality, there tends to be significantly more flirting in these law firms than in others. 


"What comes as a something of a surprise is that an environment like that leaves women who do flirt exposed to a lot of hurtful slights, like being treated rudely or as if they were stupid or being excluded from meetings. Permitting that to happen in a setting that encourages the behavior in the first place is hardly very cavalier."


Joining Prof. Smith in carrying out the research were Arthur P. Brief and Ekaterina Netchaeva of the University of Utah, Michael S. Christian of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Rommel O. Salvador, of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 


The study's findings are based on survey responses from 281 women attorneys-partners and associates alike - at 38 law firms located in the southeastern United States. Respondents, who worked an average of 50 hours a week and whose mean income was about $200,000 a year, were asked to estimate how often (from 1, never to 7, always) they engaged in specific sexual behavior to get ahead at work, with sample items including "I smile flirtatiously around certain men at work," "I send flirty or risqué emails to male coworkers," or "I have romantic flings with male colleagues." The women were also asked to indicate on a five-point scale how much they agreed or disagreed with descriptions of their work environment derived from a standard list of 20 masculine and 20 feminine traits. Sample items for masculinity included aggressiveness, assertiveness, forcefulness, ambitiousness, and openness to risk, and for femininity included cheerfulness, compassion, loyalty, sensitivity, and warmth. 


Masculinity and femininity, the authors indicate, do not describe the gender make-up of the law firms, all of which were predominantly male, but the prevailing nature of the firms' culture. In support of this research method, they cite a study of an advertising agency that had higher-than-average female representation but was "dominated by masculine values and characteristics such as aggressiveness and competitiveness," and another study of oil platforms that "suggested that manly organizations can transition into kinder and gentler organizations." As ways of describing workplace environments, masculinity and femininity don't have to be mutually exclusive, the professors explain, so that "organizations may be low in both masculinity and femininity, high in both dimensions and…high in one dimension but low in another." 


Findings include the following: 


■ The workplace ambience of the 38 law practices studied was, on average, considerably more masculine (3.70 on a scale of 1 to 5) than feminine (2.54 on a scale of 1 to 5), with the women lawyers earning significantly more in firms high in masculinity than in practices high in femininity. 


■ The more masculine a firm's culture, the higher the incidence of strategic flirting, while the incidence of flirting had no significant relationship with workplace femininity. 


■ Overall, strategic flirting evoked everyday mistreatment, but this was substantially mitigated by femininity and scarcely at all by masculinity. 


In sum, while "the backlash to strategic flirtation is pervasive…feminine organizational environments appear to buffer women from the everyday mistreatment associated with strategic flirtation. In organizations characterized by compassion, understanding, and sympathy, women who engage in strategic flirtation report experiencing less everyday mistreatment than women in less feminine



The paper, entitled " Strategic Flirtation and Everyday Mistreatment at Work: The Role of Gendered Organizations," was among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management annual meeting, held in Orlando from August 9th through 13th. Founded in 1936, the Academy of Management is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has some 19,000 members in 110 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting drew more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, organizational behavior, corporate governance, careers, human resources, technology development, and other management-related topics.


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