Once upon a time, when I was a young college student studying abroad in the UK, I was touring Cambridge with a group of my fellow exchange students when I spotted a funny street sign. I think it originally said something like, Brass rubbing £20, but some of the letters had been worn away so that it now said, ass rubbing £20 (obviously irresistable to my 20-year-old self’s sense of humour). Anyway, I struck an interpretive pose under the sign and as my friend got ready to snap a picture, an old man walking by commented, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”
Well, LSE sociologist Catherine Hakim agrees with him. She’s the author of, Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, and says that women should be exploiting their “erotic capital” (apparently that’s a thing now) to get ahead in the workplace. According to Hakim:
I coined the term erotic capital to cover a mixture of beauty, social skills, good dress sense, physical fitness, liveliness, sex appeal and sexual competence – a combination that makes some people attractive to colleagues, friends, business contacts and partners. These people smile at the world and find that the world smiles back and remembers them.
(Am I the only one who finds the tone of that last line hilarious?)
Hakim doesn’t seem to be suggesting that women can substitute good looks and charm for hard work and qualifications on the road to the top – she just thinks they’ll get us there faster. The idea that being attractive can help you get ahead isn’t exactly groundbreaking; most of us know that it’s a good idea to shower and brush your hair before a job interview (and Janis Ian wrote “At Seventeen” in the ’70s). But a key victory of the women’s movement – at least in the West – is that women don’t have to flirt, charm and manipulate their way to career success. In other words (pop culture ones), do we really want to return to Joan and Peggy’s Mad Men world? Joan expertly leverages her “exotic capital”, while Peggy employs this strategy more sporadically (and, I think, reluctantly), but I don’t think either woman gets what she really wants – respect? – this way. And that’s not just because it was 1960-something (for a thoughtful, well-written and tv-free analysis, read Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s op-ed here). Sure, I can use my sexuality to gain advantage, but I’m not convinced I’d really be getting what I want in the end.
And what of “unattractive” women (by the way, Hakim doesn’t specify how to distinguish the two)? The last thing young girls need is more pressure to be thin and pretty.
But what do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.