The Interwebs are abuzz over Catherine Hakim's new book Erotic Capital. Hakim, a British sociologist, is best known for authoring books and articles centered around women in the workplace and gender equality. A self-described feminist, Hakim has made a career of attempting to understand and iterate the social, political and economic impact woman have in the workplace and how pressures of conformity and patriarchal values create challenges for women.
Given her background, many feminists are perplexed by the assertion she makes in her latest book, that a woman's best bet in the workplace is to leverage her sexuality in order to even the odds.
Yep, that's right. A feminist telling us to use our looks to get ahead.
Not only that, Hakim asserts that women who don't take the time to maximize their sex appeal via diet, makeup, wardrobe and options like Botox are being are simply lazy and counter-productive.
To be fair, I haven't read the book yet. Its sitting in my Kindle account, waiting for my droid to have a 3G signal to download it. However, the salient points Hakim makes via her interview with The Daily Beast, are worth discussion and don't require the finer points of the book to be open to debate.
"Anyone, even quite an ugly person, can be attractive if they just have the right kind of hairstyle, clothes, and present themselves to the best effect...This isn't a frivolous spending of money. It has real benefits."
In and of itself, nothing about this statement is truly offensive. I remember attending a seminar geared toward women in business back in the late 1980's where we were advised to pay attention to how the senior executives in our company dressed. If we wanted to succeed, an easy way to demonstrate our "acceptability" was to dress the same way. If the men wore suits and ties, women should wear suits and low heels. If everyone wore solid colors - black, blue, etc - so should you. If the environment was casual, be the best-casually-dressed worker in the office. I don't think its such a stretch to encourage people to look their best at work, it demonstrates a level of attention and ambition that assures higher-ups that you are someone who's not just marking time at your job, you're in the game.
Social research doesn't lie; people make assumptions about other people all of the time based simply on how they look. It stands to reason that a competent employee who dresses like a slob is going to be less favored than an equally competent employee who dresses well, all else being equal.
Hakim asserts that "Everybody should use all the assets they've got, and this is one asset that women have often been told is inappropriate to use. I think women need to stop having a chip on their shoulder, or feel uncomfortable investing in erotic capital. Attractiveness and beauty has real value." She claims that things such as Exercise, tanning, coloring your hair and even plastic surgery are necessary evils for career success. She identifies social skills as another invaluable asset.
Its disconcerting to have someone with Hakim's considerable research behind them to bluntly advise us that we must look better in order to compete. But is it true?
I wonder if the reaction to this book would be different if the title were less threatening. Looking good doesn't necessarily convey "erotic" appeal. Dressing nicely and maintaining one's looks don't necessarily insinuate that a woman is exuding sex appeal. Utilizing a word loaded with not-so-subtle visual imagery as part of her hypothesis is certainly one way to create controversy and ensure a greater number of book sales. But then, without having read it, I have no idea whether Hakim is simply advising women to make sure they look good at work and not telling us to show off our boobs in low-cut tops and wear stiletto's to maximize the draw power of our legs and asses. Because truly, those are completely different concepts.
I've met plenty of women in the business place that easily fall into stereotypical categories. I've worked with women who were gorgeous and marginally competent, who slept with or sucked off whichever man was required in order to get a better salary, a better bonus or a promotion. I've worked with women who were incredibly good at their jobs but who were challenged either by less-than-stellar looks or a timid personality or both, and heard them degraded behind their backs by coworkers and higher-ups based simply on the scale of their physical attractiveness. I've heard people say things like "Oh yeah, she's really good at what she does, but..."
Then there are those women - the ones who have it all. Either blessed genetically with good looks or having earned them via a lot of time in the gym or under the scalpel, these women also have the brains and the personality to boot. And frankly, they blow the competition out of the water. They work hard, they get things done, and they look good doing it. That's pretty hard to compete with.
I can see it from both sides, honestly. I value a person's ability over their looks, and as a manager I know that I want to hire people who will get the job done. But as a woman in the workplace who is also interested in cultivating my own success, I often must consider how my physical appearance might benefit or harm me. One button too low? Does this make me look too casual? Am I over- or under-doing the hair and makeup? What is it I want to accomplish today and what meetings do I have where I may need to generate a better impression?
I have had the (mis?)fortune in the past of supervising stereotypical office bimbos. Women that reported to me but who were also sleeping with other managers in the company or getting massive boob jobs and distracting the entire office with their low-cut shirts, I can tell you quite honestly I'd rather have someone who is a lot more discreet in their clothing choices, regardless of the quality of their work. Its not that I resent another women for being pretty or sexy, I don't. We come in all shapes and sizes, and just because someone looks different from me or is younger than I am doesn't mean I'm competing with her. However, in my experience, a woman who openly flaunts her sexuality in the work environment becomes a distraction, breeds jealousy and resentment in her coworkers. Even if she isn't sleeping her way up the ladder, if she's wearing micro-minis and being obviously sexual in her behavior, everyone will believe that she is.
When you're managing people, you need teamwork from your people, and the pockets of overt hostility that such a woman engenders, unless she is staggeringly brilliant at her job, aren't worth it. On that basis alone, I'm going to assume that Hakim isn't telling us to "whore it up" to get ahead, but that she rather means to look and act our best and that success will naturally follow.
I'm inclined to follow my natural instinct that the inclusion of the term "Erotic" in the book's title and the somewhat inflammatory nature of Hakim's comments in her Daily Beast interview are deliberate and designed to increase interest in the book itself, and that what she's actually proposing to her readers is something other than what the book's title suggests. And if I'm wrong, and that's what she's actually suggesting, I will less-than gently opine that she's got it all wrong. Crossing a certain line when it comes to what you wear and how you act at work will do you more harm than good. And the more women that cross that line, the harder they make it for the rest of us to remind the corporate patriarchy that we are competent, we are personable, we are capable of success without using our lady parts to get there.
Edited and added: There is no question that our concepts of attractiveness are largely culturally defined. There has always been an existing conundrum for the career woman who is also a conscious feminist: How do I work to change cultural concepts while also surviving within them? If I attempt to change the culture yet still conform to it, am I damaging my message? Hakim's new book does little, if anything, to solve this dilemma.