Sep 4, 2010

Mailtoday article on Sex, Work and Career Success

Neha Tara Mehta of Mailtoday asked me for my views on a US survey that shows that women who sleep with their bosses gain career success.

The article can be read here


By Neha Tara Mehta in New Delhi

US survey says 37% of office workers believe that having an affair with the boss helps in growth at work. Is it any different in India?

ITS THE most politically incorrect admission to make in the modern workplace, but a US survey has revealed that sleeping with their boss does help women climb several notches up the corporate ladder.

The New York- based Centre for Work- Life Policy has found that 37 per cent office workers said that from their experience those who slept with their superiors were rewarded with a career boost.

Whats more, no matter how high achieving the woman is, she will not reach the very top of her profession unless she finds a sponsor — read a sugar daddy who is almost always married.

In the West, the Indian publishing industrys one- time poster boy, the sacked Penguin Canada CEO and President David Davidar was led by his “ consensual flirtation” to give a $ 10,000 ( ` 4.6 lakh) raise to former colleague Lisa Rundle and the fancy title of director of digital publishing and foreign rights. When the relationship soured, Rundle filed a suit against Davidar — costing him his job.

Cases from India Inc, though, hardly ever come to light, and are discussed only around coffee machines. Says adman Prahlad Kakkar — one of the few who are willing to come on record on how between- the- sheets liaisons can have a bearing on ones raise: “ We all know that when there is some degree of smoke there has to be some fire.

When a woman sleeps with her boss, she is called a whore. When a man sleeps around, he is called a careerist.” Adds Gautam Ghosh, the HR consultant whose blog has been ranked as one of the top 25 HR blogs by HRWorld: “ As a society, we are non- confrontationist. We would rather speak about something in hushed tones or gossip about an affair involving a celebrity.” In the West, politicians are much more flamboyant than their Indian counterparts about their peccadilloes with women who are then rewarded with plum positions.

In 2009, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconis wife Veronica Lario wrote an open letter condemning her husband for his choice of young inexperienced candidates to represent his party.

And in France, young female ministers picked by Nicolas Sarkozy go by the name Sarkozettes. Its not very different back home. Political greenhorns have made it to the Rajya Sabha, become chief ministers and even proxy- chief ministers through their liaisons with powerful men, but remain a subject to be discussed only in hushed tones.

The US survey has further revealed that 34 per cent women in executive positions said they knew of female colleagues who had slept with the boss, and even at the director level, 15 per cent of the women admitted to having had a fling.

Writer and former hotelier Advaita Kala points out that the findings could be explained by the the emergence of the raunch culture, as described by Ariel Levy in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs . Levy has written about the rejection of feminist principles and the unabashed use of sexuality to get ahead. “ There is some truth to women not being apologetic about being viewed as the fairer sex now. But in many cases, people talking about a female colleague sleeping with the boss is just misogynistic gossip.” The phenomenon has begun to make its way into popular literature and films as well. Soap queen Ektaa Kapoors former scriptwriter Smita Jains first book, Kkrishnaas Konfessions , featured as its protagonist Krrishnaa, an ambitious scriptwriter who isnt opposed to using her sexuality to forge ahead in her career.

“ Sleeping with the boss is an extreme form of tying yourself with the right person to make progress. Men can rely on their alumni and boys clubs, but most women cant. So a lot of women seek mentors in powerful people, sometimes by using sexual favours,” Jain says.

Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar has in two of his films shown women using sexuality to climb the ladder. In a real life twist, Bhandarkar was accused of running a casting couch in 2004, when Preeti Jain filed a case against him stating that she slept with him in exchange for roles in his movies.

In 2005, actors Aman Verma and Shakti Kapoor were caught in sting operations, where they were shown seeking sexual favours from aspiring starlets.

Giving the example of a beauty queen- turned- Bollywood actress, who skipped sleeping with producers and directors but dived into bed with a top Bollywood actor, Kakkar says, “ Its important to sleep with the right person.” A smart employee, he says, wont actually sleep with the boss – but be permanently on the verge of it. “ Sleeping around is the clincher, but not the meat. You have to be really competent to rise ahead,” Kakkar adds.

Author Anuja Chauhan, vicepresident and executive creative director of J. Walter Thompson, agrees sleeping around alone doesnt help in making it to the top. “ Sex may be the way up to middle management, but not to the top,” she says.

HR expert Anil Sachdev believes people using carnal means to get a career jump points to the larger issue of the lack of ethics in organisations.

“ These cases take place in organisations where leaders pay attention only to the financial aspect of success, and turn a blind eye to other attributes,” says Sachdev. “ Enlightened organisations now base 50 per cent of their performance appraisal on key result areas and the other 50 per cent to the means used to achieve the targets,” he points out.

Sleeping around to get to the top often borders on sexual harassment – something that many organisations arent equipped to deal with. “ Most HR managers arent equipped to have such conversations.They come from generic skills of recruitment and performance management,” point out Ghosh. HR heads, moreover, are often associated with business leaders, making it an intimidating task for a woman to file a complaint in quid pro quo cases.

Offices transforming into hotbeds of intrigue over suspected affairs — even when none exist — make it hard for meritorious employees to function. The US survey showed that 65 per cent of female executives suspect that salary hikes and plum assignments are being traded for sexual favours. Some 48 per cent of the men and 56 per cent of the women feel animosity towards the involved couple, leading to a drastic decline in office productivity.

This, says Sujata K, who works with the HR department of a Mumbai- based MNC, is an unfair assumption. She says, “ Im not denying that certain women do exchange favours with their bosses, but even if a woman does not do that and is successful, she is accused of having slept her way to the top.” Call it the new unwritten workplace code.

( With inputs from Sunaina Kumar in Mumbai)
 What do you think?

Another post I wrote about sex and the workplace was when I was on CNN-IBN's program Y-Not