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Catherine Hakim Headshot

Should Women Exploit Their Sex Appeal At Work?

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Lately, women keep asking me if they should be showing more cleavage at work. Or perhaps wearing shorter skirts? My book "Erotic Capital: The Power of Attractiveness in the Boardroom and the Bedroom" argues that women in particular should be less inhibited about exploiting their assets - which include attractiveness. In the workplace and at home, women are generally found to be more attractive than men, but seem not to know it. Men are more ruthless at exploiting their every advantage, and are all the richer as a result.

So should women display more cleavage at work, to redress the balance? Of course not! Flaunting sex appeal is fine - outside the workplace, in the bars and clubs where singletons meet to explore the potential for friendship, sexual encounters and more. Flaunting sex appeal at work is a risky strategy at best, and can potentially mark you as a reject.

A colleague once came into work dressed for a promotion interview in the afternoon. She wore a black dress, thinking it looked serious and sober. However it was a black lace party dress, revealing flesh beneath the fabric, and looked entirely unprofessional. She did not get the promotion, but did not understand why. In a survey of 3000 managers, 43% admitted overlooking someone for a promotion or pay rise because of the way they dressed, and 20% had even dismissed someone for this reason.

All workplaces have dress codes, which vary between industries, occupations, and with status and rank. The more senior you are, the greater the need for sobriety, classic elegance and traditional styling. Lawyers routinely favor black, especially for court appearances. Cross over to the fashion industry or the media, and color, eccentricity, following the trends and styling matter a lot more.

In New York, Debrahlee Lorenzana claimed she was fired unfairly by Citibank in 2010 because her close-fitting clothes were too revealing of her hourglass figure, so she distracted her male colleagues. In the process of challenging her dismissal as sexist and claiming compensation, she attracted substantial media coverage, with numerous photos of her in skin-tight clothing. Because of greater flexibility and choice, dress codes are trickier for women than men, with more scope for error and misleading messages. Lorenzana overlooked the fact that male bankers (and indeed male office workers generally) would never wear skin-tight clothes, and it was equally inappropriate for a woman to do so. The display of erotic capital in the workplace requires more sophistication than people assume, and the penalties for getting it wrong can be severe.

I coined the term "erotic capital" to cover a complex mix of beauty, sex appeal, social skills, good dress sense, physical fitness and liveliness, and sexual competence. This may seem like an odd combination. However research shows consistently that physical and social attractiveness walk hand in hand - there is a symbiotic relationship between them that often develops from childhood onwards. As Marilyn Monroe discovered early on, people who smile at others quickly find out that the world smiles back. Smiling makes everyone more attractive, likeable and approachable.

So women should be exploiting everything except their sexuality in the workplace, and even tread very carefully indeed in displaying sex appeal. You can be charming to many more people than you sleep with. Flirting and innuendo offer a lot more scope for innocent entertainment and fun than actually sleeping your way to the top.

Men have already established the dress codes for the workplace. Men do not show up in sleeveless shirts or figure-hugging trousers that flaunt their perfect, toned bodies and athletic physique. Women have to follow suit and cover up. The sheer imbalance in the sex ratio in most organisations, especially at the higher levels, means that women will stand out anyway - to get noticed, and be remembered months or years later. Covering up in stylish clothes that leave a lot to the imagination works better than the body-con style favored by Debrahlee Lorenzana.

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