Why do women still sleep with their male bosses?
Published 06/05/2013 | 11:08
Are women really still sleeping with their bosses to get a promotion? Does that even work in 2013?
There’s a long and distinguished list of stupid boy things I’ve done over the years, but boffing my boss isn’t one of them.
Actually, that’s not quite true. When I was 17 I started going out with my former manager at the branch of the well-known fast food chain we both worked at (golden arches anyone?). However, he’d already left to work in a call centre before we got together, so I don’t think it counts. Either way, I certainly didn’t get an extra star for my efforts.
Anyway, all my grown-up jobs have been in the female-dominated world of women’s publishing, so whether through lack of opportunity or design, I’ve never slept with my boss.
It’s possible I’m behind the curve here – in 2010, the US-based Centre For Work Life-Policy found that 15 per cent of women, even at executive level or above, admitted to sleeping with their boss. Just as tellingly, 37 per cent of workers surveyed felt that those women who had slept with their superiors improved their career chances by doing so.
Are promotions up for grabs?
Assuming the recession hasn’t killed our libidos in the past three years, are women really still sleeping with their bosses to get a promotion? Does that even work?
I spoke to one HR Director who has worked in publishing, property and travel, and has seen more than her fair share of office dalliances over the years. “I saw it a lot when I worked in commercial property. It was a very macho, male-dominated environment, lots of good-looking and often well off men in pin stripe suits.
“In my experience it tended to be women in their 20s and 30s who slept with their bosses. I think sometimes they do it out of naivety or flattery, but I have also seen women try to leverage the situation or show off to colleagues, because they perceive themselves to be in a position of power [because they’re sleeping with the boss]. And undoubtedly some of them were doing it to try and keep a job or get a promotion too.”
But surely some industries are more, erm, sexual then others? Politics is definitely an example. One female parliamentary researcher, who’d rather remain anonymous (possibly for fear of curbing her sex life) admits that male MPs frequently sleep with female researchers, which is hardly a shocking revelation.
More telling is her perception of what it does for each party’s reputation. “If you’re a male MP and you’re known as someone who sleeps with lots of young, female researchers, it doesn’t do your career any favours. You become too much of a liability to hold high office.
“That said, it’s rarely does the female researcher any harm, as long as she’s discreet and sensible. In fact, in a sea of over 700 anonymous parliamentary researchers, having your name out there on the rumour mill like that can give your career a bit of a boost.”
When it goes tits-up
But before you try and boost your CV with a bit of extra curricular, don’t forget that for every story where the woman gets the promotion she’s always been after following a harmless dalliance in the stationary cupboard, there are 50 more cringe-inducing tales of catastrophe and career hara-kiri.
After all, when any sort of relationship ends, things can get messy, as Erica discovered when embarked on an affair with her boss.
“He was a nice guy and was only four years older than me, so it didn’t feel too weird. Everyone in the office had an idea there was something up but we'd still pretend we were just friends and then run off to his office to make out. I liked the thrill it.”
Things went wrong when Erica’s boss became too clingy, and she decided to end it: “He was a mess and when I broke up with him he called his boss and cried on the phone to him about me. By this point all of our colleagues knew that we had dated, and then his boss straight up told me I had made the biggest mistake of my life. In the end I had to quit."
But Erica slept with her boss because she genuinely liked him, not because she was looking for a promotion.
Too much time in the office...
What about those women who see it as a career opportunity? Isn’t sleeping with your boss to get to that next rung on the career ladder a bit…well, retro?
One woman, who’s worked in the city for over 30 years, admits that it’s more common than people think. “It’s only when I stopped to think about it that I realised quite how rife it is. I don’t just mean secretaries sleeping with their bosses - women in quite senior positions are doing it.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s always because they want a promotion – you work long hours in the city, and end up spending a lot of time with your colleagues, so it’s bound to happen. People tend to assume women [who sleep with their bosses] are doing it as some sort of career move though – whatever their motivation. And that can actually have a negative effect on the women’s job.”
I suppose you could argue that if a woman wants to sleep with her boss, whether to garner a bit more power, or simply she because she wants to, why shouldn’t she? How many women are really operating on a level playing field with their male peers at work? And if they find a way to redress the balance and gain a bit more power in some way, then so what? Or what about the women who are genuinely attracted to their boss, and are in it for the attention, the excitement, or lust, rather than a promotion?
Weird office politics
But the reality is far more complicated than that. Most offices are like weird isolated little towns. They have their own rules, quirks and cultures, which you ignore at your peril. Even in the most outwardly collegiate office environments, the internal politics and power plays can hang on a knife-edge, and it doesn’t take much to tip the balance in the wrong direction.
If you’re the one sleeping with your boss, then you will be seen as having power over your colleagues, and being in a privileged position. And the fact is, to some extent you are.
Even Erica, who had no interest in promoting herself through her office affair, knew she was being treated differently as a result: “I certain received some minor preferential treatment (getting to leave early, going on long lunch breaks with him) and I liked it.”
But did she feel particularly guilty about this? “Not at all – I was too involved in our little world to care about anything else.”
How does boffing the boss impact on other women?
And there’s the other side of the coin – the way it impacts on your female colleagues, and the environment it creates for them. Imagine if you’re a female junior in an office where sleeping with senior male colleagues is de rigueur, and an acceptable way of redressing the balance of power in a macho, male dominated company. How can you be expected to progress on your own merit, or at the least to be viewed as more than a sexual commodity by your older, male colleagues?
No matter what your intentions, or how bowled over by love you might be, the chances of creating a toxic working environment by sleeping with your boss are high. And even if you both go out of your way to keep it out of the office, and to avoid any potential perks from your affair, that won’t be how other people see it.
When I did a quick straw poll on Twitter and with my friends asking if it’s ever ok to sleep with the boss, the results were just as complex. However, amid the myriad of different responses an office affair was repeatedly deemed more acceptable “if the relationship was really love” rather than just a fling.
And you know what? This might sound like a prudish response, but if you ask me, it’s a very sensible one. Sleeping with any colleague is tricky. Sleep with your boss and the stakes are far higher than a one-night-stand with some bloke you meet in a bar. Even if you’ve ‘done nothing wrong’, you risk harming your relationship with your colleagues, and even your own career prospects if things go pear-shaped – so it had better be worth it.