Strategic flirting in the workplace backfires on women

Sex doesn’t always sell.
Sex doesn’t always sell.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Maybe it’s time to forgo flirting as a career strategy, even if your boss’s boss finds it fabulously fun.

Here’s why: Women are more likely to smile seductively or write provocative emails to advance their agendas or their careers in masculine organizations, then as a result, they’re more likely to be mistreated by coworkers, a new research paper indicates.

The more masculine the culture of the law firms studied was, the more pervasive the flirting, according to a paper being presented to the Academy of Management Conference (pdf) this weekend.

The authors call this “strategic flirting” as they focused on women using their sexuality as a way to achieve more on the job.

“Don’t do it with the idea of getting ahead,” co-author Arthur Brief, a professor of business ethics at the University of Utah, said in an interview with Quartz. “Most of the data suggests it’s going to backfire.”

In follow-up interviews, women in the study who flirted in the office indicated that other women were subjecting them to mistreatment, or “minor social sanctions.”

“Just as flirting is a somewhat subtle behavior, we believe it will have a relatively subtle negative consequence,” the authors write. The mistreatment may include being ignored, treated rudely or excluded from work activities and other “subtle yet pervasive negative experiences people endure at work.”

Their research was based on surveys of 281 women working at 38 US law firms. Two-thirds of the women were married, and on average they were in their thirties and had practiced law for 11 years. Women were asked how often they smile flirtatiously or play dumb and act like they need help from a man. They also were asked to describe their workplace environment based on stereotypical male and female traits.

A masculine organization could be described as “assertive, aggressive and competitive” while a feminine one may be seen as nurturing and warm. The gendered organization does not necessarily draw those traits from its ratio of male versus female employees, but by the values and characteristics that permeate it.

Masculine organizations “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,” Oklahoma State professor Alexis Smith said.

Yet when women flirt at these types of organizations, they shoot themselves in the foot. In feminine workplaces, female flirts report less mistreatment as if their behavior is forgiven or overlooked.

The authors previous research showed that women “who engage in sexual displays to get ahead” make less money and win fewer promotions than others. “Displays of sexuality are not consistent with what managers do,” said Brief, noting that there are some exceptions, such as “occupations …. where I would expect sexual displays to be rewarded, not punished.” One example, he noted, where sex is part of the company culture is at Hooters or Playboy.