SEX AND THE DECLINE OF THE OFFICE MALE

Women enjoy unspoken advantages in the modern workplace.

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Contemporary accounts of office sexual harassment always surprise me. Of course I know the natural drive that can lead a man to hit on a female co-worker beyond the boundaries of propriety. But didn’t everybody get the memo, back around 1990? Isn’t the threat of being fired, being publicly shamed, having one’s company sued—not to mention having one’s wife file for divorce—enough to deter a would-be office bottom-pincher?

In cases where it isn’t, I have sympathy for the harassed. Former Fox News anchor (and Miss America) Gretchen Carlson now claims that she was one such victim. She alleges that her long-time boss, the 76-year old mediasaur Roger Ailes, requested sex in return for keeping her aboard the network after she (aged 50) had arguably passed her sell-by date.

She contends that during a meeting last fall to discuss her concerns that she was being treated unfairly, Mr. Ailes told her: “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.” [NYT]

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The story will no doubt play out in court and in the media, and the latter (except for Fox, I guess) will milk it for all it’s worth, even if it amounts to no more than a he-said, she-said tale. But over the next few decades I expect there’ll be fewer and fewer such high-profile cases—there’ll be fewer men who dare harass women so openly, and, that being the case, harassment tales will also become gradually less plausible.

That will leave office-working women to enjoy, so to speak, the silver lining without the cloud.

Yes, sexual harassment at the office has always had a silver lining for the fairer sex. The fact that male bosses and others with hiring authority value some female workers not just for their job-related skills but also the promise (however delusive) of sex with them, means that these women enjoy an advantage: a boost to their chances of being hired and of being retained once hired.

In the era when harassment was common that advantage presumably came at excessive cost to many women. But it’s also true that many women even then were—and still are—able to enjoy that man-given advantage, that bump in their value, without ever being harassed. After all, not every case of office hanky-panky involves actual harassment. And not every case of valuing a woman for her sexual potential results in actual hanky-panky. Some male bosses may hire pretty female faces (along with their boobs, legs, and bottoms) merely because they want to see themselves as the alpha male, surrounded by an aviary of decorative chicks.

This may seem a misogynistic analysis, but it was women themselves—married stay-at-home women, more than half a century ago—who first complained about this inevitable “extra valuation” of their office-working sisters. As those worried moms predicted, and as shows like Mad Men have accurately depicted, the mass entry of women into office work eventually helped lead to skyrocketing divorce rates.

I haven’t even mentioned the direct opportunities male harassers offer some women at the office—opportunities that (according to Carlson’s allegations among many others) are often accepted eagerly.

All in all, men’s extra, sexual valuation of women in the workplace should perhaps be recognized as the world’s oldest form of affirmative action.

Have I exhausted the list of advantages women enjoy in the office environment? Perhaps not. For example, it’s certainly plausible that many female managers and HR types prefer female co-workers—whom they perhaps see as more meek and obedient and malleable—to males who, being burdened with testosterone, are less willing to take orders from a lady boss. Currently about 70% of human resources managers in the US are women.

Of course, all this stuff about the advantages of women doesn’t fit the traditional feminist model of gender relations, in which women are everywhere and always the victims. But if women don’t enjoy hidden advantages in the workplace, why has female employment been going higher, as male employment goes ever-lower?

SEX AND THE DECLINE OF THE OFFICE MALE