If you are a successful and possibly intimidating woman, the chances are that at some point in your career someone has accused you (to your face or behind your back) of sleeping your way to the top. This reduction of a woman’s professional accumen to sexual privilege is just another male fantasy, why then do we never discuss the male behaviour that causes it to come up so often?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
We’ve all worked in an office where someone seems to have defied the Peter Principle, right? The Peter Principle dictates that people rise through the ranks only to the level of their incompetence but there’s always a person, here and there, who seems to have risen way past their incompetence and is somehow placed in a role they seem completely unable to manage. A person who makes us wonder — How did you get that job? For me this happened in my very first job. There was a woman in-charge of production and while I wouldn’t say that she was not bright, I would say she was extremely indecisive and inefficient and those are traits that should not be found in someone heading production. She couldn’t make a decision to save her life and was constantly changing her mind, often when we had already started acting on her previous instructions. She was everyone’s favorite subject of exasperation and we often ended our rants wondering how she got the job.
One theory was suggested more often and with more relish than any other: She was sleeping her way to the top.
At the time I didn’t realise the extent to which that was problematic as a suggestion, I just didn’t engage with it, but over the years I noticed a lot of women’s success being explained away as sexual prowess. In the case of my former colleague, she was incompetent, but a lot of the women I heard this about since then were quite brilliant. The accusation that they were there because they had gotten undressed in front of the right person was indiscriminate when it came to competence. You didn’t have to be good or bad at your job for people to begin suggesting that you had gotten it by sleeping around, you just had to be a woman. On the face of it, that seems like the disgruntled ravings of a person who is bitter about losing the competitive but there’s a lot more to it than that.
First of all, let me say that morally-speaking I take no issue with a person using their sexuality to get ahead in a world where they are solicited to do that and promised rewards for it. It may be a jaded position, but the truth is that the meek shall not inherit the earth, honesty doesn’t always win the day and integrity doesn’t mean shit to most people. A lot of times when people are competing for a position, and it comes to the final round, they are all equally qualified (on paper), and if the person handing out the job is basing their decision on whose pants they can get into, that’s on them (even legally-speaking, they are in a position of power and able to coerce the applicant), if I am willing to take my pants off to give myself an edge, I don’t see the lack of morality in that. That being said my position on morality comes from the cutthroat, brutally-ambitious girl that lives inside me, I tried to sedate her by running, doing yoga and drinking chamomile tea but it only made her stronger (and more expensive to sustain). However, I feel, all too often, we discuss this issue from the vantage point of the morality of the person who was willing to sleep their way to the top, and never from the place of the person who demanded it. We never discuss why we are so comfortable with believing that about any successful woman.
I mean, there is the obvious reason, the need to justify keeping women out of the workforce and paying us less by proving that we don’t compete on merit but on wiles and preference. Society is threatened by successfull women because they are unable to put them in a box and while a man must manage family and work as well, he is often lauded for giving more time to work, a woman who does that is judged by a different yardstick. The most threatening creature is a woman who actually manages to have a successful career, a thriving social life and a happy family, that creature is most often at the receiving end of allegations of using their sexuality to get ahead. The way many people see it is that a man’s desire for a woman is an unfair advantage given to women however there are plenty of unfair advantages given to men as well. When a man goes into an interview and talks about his children, the odds are skewed in their favour because we believe, still, that a man is the one supporting the family. It is not without reason that men’s careers experience growth after they have children (otherwise known as the Fatherhood Bonus) whereas women’s careers often tank after they have children (otherwise known as the motherhood penalty).
But all of that misses the key point. The heart of this issue is still that a woman in a position of power being viewed as an evil seductress plays into a male fantasy; a fantasy that enables them to ignore the skill and intelligence a woman may possess and reduce her to a sexual tool. That is the sinister plot that is actually at play here. A successful woman is decidedly immoral because most men still have a lot of difficulty letting women into the boy’s club of professionalism and acknowledging that they lost out to a woman because of her professional accumen is a lot harder to do than saying it was the unfair advantage of her sexuality that got her there. However, that approach still scrutinizes the women, and the fact that women can (whether they do or not is irrelevant to this point) get ahead by bartering sex means that most of the people making those decisions are still heterosexual men. The environment that enables sexual favours is created by the people at the top and when someone is fundamentally disadvantaged they can be compelled to take that path.
See, women are professionally disadvantaged in almost every field. While corporate set-ups have an even ratio of men and women at entry-level positions, the number of men in managerial positions is much higher. There are astoundingly few female surgeons. While many women go to law school, most litigating lawyers are men. And professions that are female-dominated like teaching and nursing are alarmingly unpaid. Add to the fact that asking a woman about her reproductive plans is common at interviews, and rejecting her based on that is acceptable. Women have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as men and even when we do get it, criticism of our character is muttered quietly behind our backs. Women are paid less than men for doing the same job and there still many professions like civil engineering and taxi-driving where women are just not welcome. There is a culture of disadvantage, and in that environment if a woman sees the opportunity to use her body to advance herself, what is so terrible about that? You left her no other way to do it.
And most importantly, the reason it works is not because of the women, the reason it works is because men are making professional decisions based on masturbatory fantasies. If you want to give me a job because you think I am hot, that’s on you, I came to this interview with a resume and a portfolio. If all you want to assess are my legs, don’t accuse me of sleeping my way to the top when I did it in your bed.