Feb 16 2000

Wall Street Journal Claims Sex Is Secret of Young Businesswomen’s Success

A recent front-page story of the Wall Street Journal cheerily announced, “In Today’s Workplace, Women Feel Freer To Be, Well, Women” (2/7/00). The first of two subheadings explained what the Journal thinks being, well, women is all about: “Floppy Bow Ties Give Way To More-Alluring Attire; Sex Banter Has Its Place.” (When the story jumped to its continuing page, the headline referred to “The Feminization of the Workplace” — as if the essence of femininity can be reduced to fashion and innuendo.)

The second subhead wonders about the effects of feminine expression in the office: “Flirting–or Good Business?” The article suggests that–like men who have supplemented their business skills with their golf games–ambitious young women are using their looks, their charm, and even “unabashed flirting” to advance professionally.

But how does the Journal define women’s workplace flirtations? “Teasing, bantering, a direct look in the eye.” One perpetrator described in the piece “jokes and makes lighthearted comments in the office, smiles and sometimes uses sarcasm.”

This dubious definition of flirting aside, the Journal doesn’t muster any evidence to support the idea that young businesswomen are ushering in the millennium by flirting their way to the top. It’s a trend the Journal claims to observe but makes little effort to document, aside from a few anecdotes from some 20-somethings who say that “playing the attractiveness card” helps get their foot in the door with established businessmen who won’t talk to them unless they smile pretty. The piece includes no countervailing quotes from young women who deny efforts to play up their sexuality in pursuit of increased success.

Ostensibly seeking the feminist point of view, Journal reporter Ellen Pollock interviewed Gloria Steinem and NOW president Patricia Ireland. But while they described office flirting as potentially confusing and contested its productivity, it is unclear if Steinem or Ireland were ever asked whether they think large numbers of women are actually using it as a business strategy.

Then there was the opinion of a male engineer who says that these female flirters are the professional equivalents of teasing cheerleaders, who taunt and manipulate male coworkers with “a smile and a promise of more,” and end up “on the fast track to promotions.” This is what men’s anger in the workplace is all about, the engineer fumed: “[Men] realize that when all things are equal, that females have the advantage. If you have an advantage you shouldn’t be allowed to use it.”

The Journal does not mention that since there are still only three female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and since women still make only approximately 75 cents for every dollar men earn, all things are certainly not equal in corporate America. So much for women’s “advantage.”

For expert commentary on this supposed new trend, the Journal turned to anti-feminist author Warren Farrell, who they describe impartially as a “write[r] about men and their relationships with women.” Farrell claims that when young, attractive women interact casually with male coworkers, men become “confused” about their intentions and may react innocently, thereby becoming “vulnerable” to sexual harassment charges.

Furthering the media’s continued misrepresentation of sexual harassment as a misinterpreted but innocently intended one-time event, the Journal features Farrell’s charge that “It only takes one mistake in a man’s life to have a potential for ending his career.” For men who seek to suppress their sex drives in the office, Farrell insists, working with engaging young women is “like being an alcoholic and seeing drinks all around him.”

The implication: The mere presence of young women in a business setting creates a hardship for men who seek to resist temptation, and for older women considered too far past their prime to leverage their looks for a boost up the corporate ladder.

Under the newly coined phrase “the deportment gap,” the Journal identifies only two roles for women in the workplace: the “stern,” “somber,” humorless and supposedly asexual women of “about a decade ago” who refuse to trade on their sexuality for success, pitted against the “far more relaxed,” “feminine” 20-somethings who are “using the personal tools at their disposal to get ahead professionally”–tools such as Capri pants and tank tops.

“Does this represent the triumph, or the betrayal, of the feminist movement?” the Journal asked. They call it a “hard question,” but the Journal‘s query doesn’t seem “difficult”–it seems disingenuous in a story that implies young women are succeeding not based on their intelligence but on their willingness to exploit their sexuality–even when there is no evidence for this claim. (Most of the behaviors described are as innocuous as maintaining eye contact and expressing a sense of humor.) Since the only place the “deportment gap” seems to be popping up is in the pages of the Journal, the better question might be, “Does this WSJ article represent ignorance of, or hostility to, the real experiences of professional women?”

ACTION: Think the Journal‘s idea of young women trading sexuality for success was based more on stereotypes than on any hard evidence? Let the Journal know.


Journal staff writer Ellen Pollock


Fax: 212-416-2350

Pollack’s editor, Carol Hymowitz


Letters can be sent to Pollock and Hymowitz at:

The Wall Street Journal

200 Liberty Street

New York, NY 10281

Please “cc” letters to Jenn Pozner.