Lucy Mangan

“Flirting in the workplace won’t work long-term"

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Hello! How are you? And don’t you look lovely today… why, I do declare you quite take my breath away! Is it working? Are you charmed? Ready to be seduced into my way of thinking over the next few – *lowers voice and eyelids* – minutes?

No? Oh, bugger. I always was rubbish at this flirting lark. Which is particularly bad news in the wake of a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, which has shown that it can be a valuable asset to women in the workplace and in all sorts of business transactions. One of the experiments carried out by research director Dr Laura Kray and her team found that flirtatious women were able to get the price of a car lowered by about a fifth, and could expect to increase their chances of success in any given scenario by as much as a third.

So, the good news is: Those killer heels you fractured your credit card to buy will actually pay for themselves in no time. The bad news is… well, where to begin?

According to the Berkeley gang, feminine charm (which they define as a combination of warmth, friendliness and flirtation – which itself comprises playfulness, flattery and sex appeal) is a management technique available to women which can help them evade the normal perils of being seen as too ‘masculine’ (ie powerful and authoritative) or too feminine (ie soft, friendly and a pushover). Flirting, according to the researchers, is known to have a selfish motivation. In other words, everyone involved is aware that you are only acting this way in order to further your own goals – and so you are perceived as powerful, a ‘player’ at the table but the flirting blunts that unappealing forthrightness so prized in men, and makes you seemly instead.

The first piece of bad news, then, is that some of this is true. Women in the workplace, especially in the private, corporate world, are frequently faced with the catch 22 of being judged by male norms and being disapproved for meeting them (how unwomanly!) or for failing to (how incompetent!). Flirtation can effectively muddy these waters and seem to offer a nifty way to duck these obstacles.

As well as letting yourself down you let women as a whole down too

The second piece of bad news is that Dr Kray et al’s interpretation of what is going on during a flirtatious business or other encounter is hopelessly naïve, boundlessly optimistic and entirely wrong. Any advantage a woman secures in such a situation by flirting is not because her opponent/victim/mark is sitting across the table thinking, ‘What a clever adaptation of the necessary power dynamic so that my female interlocutor is effectively able to engage on the terms I respect and understand but without any longer transgressing the sociocultural norms that I also esteem and any breach of which i customarily find offensive and alienating’. it’s because he’s sitting there thinking that he might, just might, be in with a chance of boning her if she grants it.

Now, that may be one way to do business. But it’s a very risky way. Partly because you are depending on something intangible and ephemeral, which can let you down at any moment in a way that competence in your field, solid mastery of the facts and an ability to think on your feet will never do. And partly, and far more importantly, it is because while flirting as a management technique may work in the short term, it won’t in the long term because it doesn’t earn you any respect. It offers you an easy way out instead of prompting you to work hard or gain genuine skills and useful experience. You can’t build on it and it is hard to backtrack on it once you have started down the path. And most people, once they get to a certain age, or point in their lives or careers, want to be taken seriously, even if they never did before. but you are trapped, with nothing to fall back on.

And of course as well as letting yourself down (I’m sorry, I appear to be channelling the ghosts of teachers past here), you let women as a whole down too. The willingness of someone to substitute flirting for good work and earned rewards effectively undermines the perceived professional competence of us all. It does nothing to help the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace and sexism in the wider world. So please, for the sake of women you haven’t met and women still to come, keep it out of the boardroom, and in the bar, where it belongs.

Picture credit: Rex Features

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