Do Flirty Women Finish First?

If promotion eludes you, a new study suggests cranking up your flirt-ometer.

When my mother sallied forth as a professor at a male-dominated university in the '60s, she was young, attractive and uncertain of how to behave. Someone pulled her aside with a bit of pithy advice: “You can either be a bimbo or a bitch.” Alrighty then! Mom dressed in dowdy clothes and copped an attitude that made the guys bristle when she entered the room. She got things done. But it was not exactly fun-tastic.

I came along in an era when the roles available to women seemed a bit more flexible. But it still wasn’t easy reading the behavioral tea leaves of the workplace. Displaying feminine charm could still bring male coworkers charging over the desk, or earn you the eternal ire of female colleagues. But in the South, where I was raised, flirting is more or less part of your social training. Its absence can be viewed as ineptitude, or worse, the sign of a lack of confidence. Flirting in a laboratory versus flirting on a car lot can read quite differently, of course. The calculus also varies by region. When I moved to New York, I learned that my natural Southern gregariousness was more stimulating in work settings than I realized, which could produce either negative or positive results, depending on the circumstances. The age of colleagues made a difference. Flirting seemed like a volatile secret weapon, prone to backfiring.

We may be at something of a transition point in the history of flirting. Centuries of socialization still prime us to view aggressive behavior as more acceptable in men, which puts professional women in a bind. But a new study from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business authored by Laura Kray indicates that women who flirt are viewed as more effective negotiators. Flirting is also viewed more positively for women than for men in the office.

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The Berkeley researchers evaluated the negotiating skills of 100 people, male and female. They asked how often the participants used “personal charm,” including both verbal and nonverbal cues, to accomplish their work goals. The experiments revealed that for men, there was no correlation between social charm and negotiating ability. (Guys, you can go back to being straight-up aggressive.) But there was for women. Flirting apparently puts some men at ease in a way that diminishes the nut-shrinking anxiety produced by powerful, competent females.

The sample was small, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the looseness of phrases like “personal charm” might cloud results. When does charm become coquetry? When does a smile invite confidence, and when pawing? Is an ironic joke considered flirting? Does anybody even understand irony anymore? “No precise formula exists for enacting feminine charm” Kray admits.

I also wondered if the term “impression management,” Kray's b-school lingo for “feminine charm,” might be the least charming expression I have ever heard.

Kray explained in a statement that “senior women executives admit they love to flirt” and habitually describe themselves as “big flirts.” She pointed to women like Madeline Albright, the first female secretary of state, who claimed in a 2009 interview with Bill Maher that she used her feminine charm in negotiations with foreign heads of state. That sounded familiar. Christopher Hitchens famously swooned over flirt-master Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher, who snapped him on the rear with a rolled-up copy of the day’s parliamentary orders. Bloody exciting!

In the media world where I work, women in top positions often seem to be quite flirty, their winks and jokes a part of what’s seen as their personal charisma. If you’ve ever talked to Arianna Huffington – whether you are male or female -- you may have found yourself bathed in a shimmering mist of flirtatiousness. It’s part of her Circean power.

So how exactly does one go about flirting effectively on the job? “The key is to flirt with your own natural personality in mind,” Kray advises. “Be authentic. Have fun. That will translate into confidence, which is a strong predictor of negotiation performance.”

But be careful! Don’t be too nice about it. Kray notes that research has also shown that “if feminine charm inadvertently signals low competitive intent, it may decrease rather than increase female negotiators’ economic payoffs.”

So I guess the big bucks come from flirtiness-with-an-edge. Friendliness with a twist. The idea quickly descends into a comical vision of an ingratiating dominatrix wielding a velvet hammer. But it might be fun to try.

You might want to resist the urge to snap young men on the fanny, though. Unless your nickname is already Iron Lady.

Lynn Parramore is an author and cultural theorist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.