— Work It

Should women use their sex appeal to get ahead at work?

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Women comprise more than half of the workforce in a number of different fields and yet an unfortunate reality that the business world can feel like a male-dominated space. That’s why women like Barbara Corcoran, real estate guru and an investor on ABC’s Shark Tank, inspire many of us to find success despite the extra hurdles we have to jump to get ahead. However, Barbara got people talking last week with her comments saying she would “yank up [her] skirt” to get noticed in the business world.

According to People, in a tweet that has since been deleted, Barbara wrote, “I find running a #business in a man’s world to be a huge advantage. I wear bright colors, yank up my skirt + get attention.” She later defended her comment on Access Hollywood, saying:

“When I was building my business, I would walk into a room of 600 men in dark suits and I dress like a guy in a nice pant suit, no one would say hi to me no one would entertain me. The minute I started wearing bright suits and I would have a nice length skirt on, I would just roll up the middle and walk into that room, everyone paid attention to me.”

On the one hand, women should never be reduced to their sexuality. We want to be worthy of respect based on merit alone. Walking around the office with shorts skirts and high heels because that’s the only way we can do business, rather than just because they’re things we enjoy wearing, sounds pretty frustrating (not to mention, cold).

On the other hand, business is a dog-eat-dog world.  Getting ahead through whatever means is still empowering as long as it’s safe. Rocking a bomb outfit shows confidence, and just because we’re being sexual doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong.

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Barbara’s remark really has us wondering: Does it help or hurt women to use sex appeal to their advantage? We chatted with Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of Women Online, a content strategy and marketing agency, and Alexis Jones, former Survivor contestant and founder of I Am That Girl, an organization which seeks to empower girls through mentoring, over email to get their perspective.

“Speaking as a businesswoman, I agree with the sentiment that I believe Barbara is trying to convey: business is cutthroat, do what you have to to achieve,” Alexis wrote. “I believe that Barbara is speaking from experience and advocating for the principle of tackling overwhelming adversity by any means possible.”

Morra expands on this, saying:

“If a woman wants to hike up her skirt to gain attention that’s her choice, and I don’t judge. Certainly a man or a woman can use their looks to their advantage at times and if showing off your great legs boosts your confidence, rock it.”

However, both are quick to point out that sexuality in the workplace could have its downsides.

“When taken out of context, I find the statement troubling,” Alexis explained. “In particular, where a woman is in a junior position at a company (i.e., an intern, associate, etc.), the idea that she has to visually stimulate her managers and boss to further her career, seems antiquated.”

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Morra also pointed out that this strategy could backfire. “You can’t control others’ perceptions of you,” she warned. What might work in one business situation could not fly in another, and relying solely on looks may not be a universally successful tactic — in fact, it could wind up giving people a bad impression. It’s frustrating, because it can feel like women are constantly walking a fine line that simply doesn’t exist for men.

This isn’t to say that men are entirely exempt from the pressure to look good or change their personality in order to get things done. “A man may be compelled to make other ‘concessions,’ such as taking on a ‘macho man’ persona (as Barbara describes Donald Trump as having done), to secure clients and build his business,” Alexis wrote.

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However, men and women definitely do not face equal pressures in the workplace. Alexis points out that men generally don’t face the same risk of these tactics backfiring, at least, not as severely as it could for women. Plus, they haven’t had to face years and years of discrimination before making it to the top. Men are more likely to be evaluated based on the merit of their work and compete against his peers, and visual stimulation is not on the list of items he must satisfy,” she explained. 

What Morra and Alexis advocate for is not one universal method, but the freedom for women to choose what works best for them, and for those choices to be respected. “My problem with ‘women’s empowerment’ is how often we do the opposite to empowering each other. What works for one person, doesn’t have to work for everyone; but I think we need to be more respectful of the choices people make,” Alexis wrote, referring to the backlash against Barbara after her comments. “I stand for every woman, and that means defending women that wish to wear pale, drab colors and women, like Barbara, that wish to wear beautiful, vivid colors and a short skirt.” 

Obviously, the ideal is to live in a world where merit alone is the only deciding factor in who succeeds. But until then, if you got it, why not flaunt it?

What do you think of Barbara Corcoran’s remarks? Let us know in the comments!

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