I used to work with a woman who, whenever she approached a man's desk, would lean forward to speak to him, presenting her cleavage like a gift from Victoria's Secret (LTD). This tic annoyed the female staffers greatly. "What is she doing?" we'd whisper to each other in the bathroom, secretly worrying that she was gaining some intangible advantage over those of us who buttoned up our button-ups. Eventually, and awkwardly, a female manager spoke to her about appropriate attire. The V-necks turned into turtlenecks, but her tendency to caress men's arms and bat her eyelashes remained, as did our paranoia.
The anxiety seemed justified, as most useful anxiety does, by the news. Last month, British consumer research site confused.com surveyed 2,000 men and women about workplace flirting. Of the female respondents, 21 percent said they'd flirted to receive preferential treatment. In October a further study, co-authored by a University of California, Berkeley professor and published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, confirmed that chatting up men gets women a better deal in zero-sum negotiations. The researchers asked women to greet used-car salesmen two ways--either with a standard "hello" or with a warm smile, a touch of the salesman's arm, and the line, "You're even more charming than over e-mail." The flirts got, on average, 20 percent more taken off the price than the others did. (When there was a woman selling the same dented Volkswagen (VOW), results were more neutral.)