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Flirting at Work Is a Catch 22 For Women

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Some companies just encourage women are to flirt at work. The problem is that they pay a high price for doing so, new research shows.

A study, which will be presented at this week's annual meeting of the Academy of Management, revealed that workplace cultures that encourage traditionally masculine qualities, such as aggressiveness and assertiveness, encourage women to flirt while, at the same time, punishing those who do so by mistreating them on a daily basis. In contrast, workplace cultures that encourage stereotypically feminine values offer no such encouragement but are forgiving when flirting does occur

The study, which focused on law firms, found that offices with high-powered, masculine cultures often encourage employees to aggressively use their assets, including their sexuality, said Oklahoma State University's Alexis Smith, a co-author of the study.

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"What comes as something of a surprise is that an environment like that leaves women who do flirt exposed to a lot of hurtful slights, like being treated rudely or as if they were stupid or being excluded from meetings," Smith said. "Permitting that to happen in a setting that encourages the behavior in the first place is hardly very cavalier."

Researchers said women who engage in strategic flirtation around the office tend to experience subtle but persistent forms of mistreatment from their co-workers.

"Masculine organizations encourage the use of strategic flirtation, but we found no evidence that organizational masculinity shields women from the associated everyday mistreatment," the researchers wrote. "[But] the more an organization displays characteristics and behaviors stereotypically attributed to the female gender, the less strategic flirtation is related to everyday mistreatment."

The study's findings are based on survey responses from nearly 300 women attorneys — partners and associates alike — at 38 law firms located in the southeastern United States. Respondents were asked to estimate how often they engaged in specific sexual behaviors to get ahead at work. These behaviors included smiling flirtatiously at certain male colleagues, sending flirty or risqué emails to male co-workers or going as far as having a romantic fling with someone from the office.

In addition, the women were asked to answer questions designed to determine whether their workplace environment was more masculine or feminine. Masculinity and femininity, the authors indicated, did not describe the gender makeup of the law firms, all of which were predominantly male, but rather the prevailing nature of the firms' cultures.

The researchers found that strategic flirting by female employees evoked everyday mistreatment, but was substantially mitigated by femininity and scarcely at all by masculinity.

The study's authors said that while the backlash to strategic flirtation is pervasive, feminine organizational environments appear to buffer women from the everyday mistreatment that is often associated with it.

"In organizations characterized by compassion, understanding and sympathy, women who engage in strategic flirtation report experiencing less everyday mistreatment than women in less feminine organizations," the authors wrote.

The study was co-authored by Arthur Brief and Ekaterina Netchaeva of the University of Utah; Michael Christian of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Rommel Salvador, of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 

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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.