Fast Company

Why Women Should Flirt at Work

Women in BusinessAlthough women make up half of the nation's workforce, they hold only 16.4% of corporate offices in the fortune 500, 14.7% of Fortune 500 board seats and 1.6% of Fortune 500 CEO positions (Catalyst 2007). Okay, you've heard all that before. What's new?

Research that explains what may be going on at work. According to researchers Tinsley, Cheldelin, Schneider, and Amanatullah, who authored "Women at the Bargaining Table: Pitfalls and Prospects" women are in a classic double bind: "women may be perceived as competent but unlikable or as likable but incompetent." This bind exists because there are very strong female stereotypes in our culture.

Of course this is not news to any woman in the field, but these researchers discovered that "women who violate gendered expectations incur negative social consequences. In other words, evaluators tend to make negative judgments about women who behave in masculine ways to fulfill the needs of their jobs."

But if masculine means assertive, self-reliant and powerful, you can see how easily a woman can get screwed in the eyes of her beholders. This is often referred to as backlash and because women fear backlash they often don't act in their best interests. The researchers found that both men AND women negatively evaluate women who do not behave in stereotypically female ways.

The choices then are these--work within the stereotypes or be careful in situations to not activate gender stereotypes.

The researchers point to an experiment that looked at flirting in a negotiation context. When both women and men flirted in the negotiation, women were perceived as more likable. As the researchers noted, because flirting is seen as more stereotypically feminine behavior, the women may have benefited from using it. Furthermore, the "flirting had no impact on the measure of the female negotiator's perceived competence, although it did diminish her perceived trustworthiness."

Further, the researchers found that gender stereotypes are usually not activated in contexts where resources are abundant ("Threats tend to heighten the negative stereotypes of both individuals and other social groups."), the woman is the boss or when women act for the benefit of others. Women acting for the benefit of others, like their teams, is consistent with the stereotypes we have of women, that they are collaborative and nurturing.

Not everyone works within gender stereotypes, but as they are subconsciously pervasive, the argument is that it's important to understand that these stereotypes are often at play. And hopefully that will help us level the playing field.

Feel free to flirt with Alicia at www.aliciamorga.com.

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16 Comments

  • laurie ruettimann

    I know what the research shows—but it's one book and one set of findings.

    The research doesn't make it right or smart.

  • R J

    Let's get back; no "let's move forward".

    Let's let common sense become our guide. Let's allow ability, skill, leadership qualities (and yes including tenacity, intelligence, wit and charm) help us decide who we might promote to what positions in our businesses. But let's allow only those to lead are companies who are results oriented; and by that I mean can lead (or change) our companies into consistently productive and profitable places to work in both the long and short term sense. Only then should we support, promote and award someone with the title - President / CEO.

  • Larry

    Flirting is normal and can work for or against someone. Positions of power are generally held by competent people that have earned the right to be there. Flirting will never get you there too, unless you want to marry the boss.

    And by the way I feel good if someone flirts with me..It boosts my fellings about my looks and worth.. So whats wrong with that...??? It is like saying you are attractive, and who can't use a bit of that.. Key word..a bit.

    Of course like anything it has its limits and boundries. And anyway , it will never be stopped, and frankly why should it.

  • In The Real World

    I am a woman who works primarily with the management staff in an industry with a little more than a 10% female workforce. I disagree with both perceptions described in the article- the men who are confident, self-reliant, assertive and powerful are also typically respectful, listen and give staff dignity with decision making. The women, sometimes (not always), drop the respect portion and come across as condescending or undermining; or try to control rather than lead. I have experienced this directly, and watched it, from both genders- however women in leadership roles do seem to more commonly mix up assertiveness with being rude.

    In addition, women and men are flirty generally, but women who really flirt (lean over the desk to tell secrets, etc) might get along very well with their boss, but everyone else loses respect for the position the woman might have earned fairly. For men, its often whether or not they were "friends" with the manager that acts in the same way.

  • Alicia Morga

    GP - good note. It's a research paper (not a book) and there's a link to it in the article. The point was their research supported "working within the stereotype." I highly recommend checking out the research paper - it's very accessible in terms of writing style and interesting. Best, Alicia

  • Clive Rich

    Interesting take on negotiation in the work-place. I tend to find that all people, regardless of their sex or any other characteristic achieve most success as negotiators when they master the basics of negotiation attitude, negotiation process and negotiation behaviour. Women can be just as effective as men at this and their sex should then be less relevant in the negotiation.

  • Alicia Morga

    Clive - yes, people regardless of their sex, can be successful negotiators. The research highlights, however, that even if we don't think it should be or want it to be a part of the negotiation, the sex of the parties involved is very relevant. The link to the research can tell you more, but the experiments to which they refer also point out that men who tried flirting in negotiations were not successful. Best, Alicia

  • GP

    In terms of flirting, the above makes it seem like it made women more likable (plus), no impact on perceived competence (neutral) and less trustworthy (a negative). Unless there's a scale to these I'm missing or I misunderstood the quote, it doesn't feel like the article gives much support to the premise that women should flirt more at work.
    From the book mentioned, since flirting makes a women more likable it seems like that would actually be worse since women would fall into the "likable but incompetent" category.

  • Alicia Morga

    Dr Who - I hardly think one post on gender stereotypes an obsession makes. Still, I appreciate the comment. Debate is good. Best, Alicia

  • Dr Who

    Alicia, I'm sure you're a very nice person and are well-intentioned, but why the obsession with "leveling the playing field"? Why does it need to be leveled? It's not level even between men. Some men and some types of men have advantages over others. That's life and men know it. Why do women have to make up x percentage of this and y percentage of that, and if they do not make up said percentages, then there is apparently something wrong? Our country has lost its mind and lost its way. No wonder we're about to slip to third-world status and are financially bankrupt.

  • Maria Labreveux

    It's not about leveling the playing field, it's about ensuring that the brightest minds, the most creative, are given an opportunity to innovate and advance our economy.
    If 51% of our population (and graduates) are female, and only a small fraction of them are represented in the job market, we are bound to be missing on really good ideas.
    We need idea breakthroughs, and those may be lying idle inside the minds of those that we stereotype against.

  • Larry

    In the movie industry woman have moved into many top level positions and me as a man just sees more opprtunities to work as these woman have produced new and good material.
    In time if woman are able to produce more or better , it will occur . Complaining and insisting on change will only slow down what is alrady happening.

  • L Hiner

    Right... third world status is a social experiment away... Oh, and while we are keeping score, women account for 100% of all pregnancies - ever. What's with that???

    Alicia, I like the idea of leveraging gender stereotypes for corporate counterinsurgency... not ignoring them and pretending them away. The female leaders I work with garner success in a way that seems more natural (conforming to stereotypes?) than contrived. Like anyone anywhere - you either have it or you don't - and if you don't, we can tell you are faking it... Cheers!

  • Moe

    " you either have it or you don't - and if you don't, we can tell you are faking it" Completely agree! I think wage discrepancies between genders would of made a more interesting article. Although, what do I know about articles I have never written one before :).