Is flirting with – or, dare we say it, dating – the boss okay post-#MeToo? Caroline O’Donoghue ponders this, and suggests we need to remember just how much history we’re dealing with when it comes to gender at work.
In the early, thrilling days of my 68-year-old father reading my first novel – the most nerve-shredding time for any new novelist, I’m pretty sure – I expected questions.
I expected the character, an online agony aunt, to be a confusing concept for him. It wasn’t.
I expected the sex scenes, relatively graphic and not always joyful, to be disturbing to him. They weren’t. I expected him to have questions about the extended references to having cystitis. He didn’t.
“The only thing I’m confused about,” he said, in the car one day. “Is why Jane feels guilty about having a crush on her boss.”
It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer in my head ever since. Our culture is full of references to men cheating on their wives with their professional understudies. Mad Men, Fatal Attraction, 9 to 5… they all revolve around the basic premise that people meet at work, and shortly after, they have sex with one another.
So why does my main character Jane feel so guilty about being attracted to a man who is also attracted to her? Yes, he is obviously bad news, but should she really feel as bad as she does, for entertaining thoughts about him?
It’s true that many people meet their partners at work (I did!), and it’s not hard to see why so many film and TV shows get so much mileage out of the scenario.
But in the wake of #MeToo – a time when, not only were women opening up about sexual harassment at work, but people actually seemed to listen and care – there seemed only room for two kinds of relationships.
Two kinds of men, really: the all-powerful Harvey Weinstein figures, impossible to thwart and that seemingly exist in every professional realm; and the “lad culture” made up of un-enlightened mid-level blokes making jokes about Linda’s legs or Brenda’s bust.
Flirtation to get ahead
As accusations about celebrity men came pouring in – Dustin Hoffman’s alleged sexual harassment of a teenage intern; Aziz Ansari’s alleged poor attempts at seducing an uninterested young woman – I kept wondering if we’d hear about the fuzzier, poorly-defined relationships that existed in between.
The relationships made up of carefully judged flirting, drinks that go on a little too long, meetings that inexplicably take place in the coffee shop around the corner from the office, and not in the office itself.
The everyday work encounters that thrum with sexual possibility, and are encouraged as long as it all remains a mere possibility, and no one actually does anything. It’s the sort of flirtation that many women have long used to get ahead, because for them, it feels like the only way to get ahead.
This is the kind of relationship I wanted to explore in my book, Promising Young Women. Jane, a 26-year-old who’s been working at the same advertising agency for two years, entirely unnoticed by even her own line manager, is singled out by an older, more senior employee.
He becomes her “mentor”, bringing her to client meetings, giving her interesting creative work, praising her instincts. She develops a crush on him, and wrestles with what it is she’s actually attracted to: the man, or the fact that the man is able to jump-start her ailing career?
When she eventually begins an affair with him, guilt follows her everywhere: Why is she doing this? Is her career improving because she’s having sex with her boss, or because the act of having sex with her boss is bringing her closer to the opportunities she never had before? Does it matter? Should it?
Villains and victims
It’s easy to align yourself with feminism and #MeToo when it’s steeped in the kind of horror stories that were blowing up our phones between October and March 2018*. It’s easy to be horrified by the bathrobe-in-the-hotel room stories.
As a journalist, it’s also very easy to report on them, because these are the stories everyone seems to want to click on. But it’s not always as easy as villains and victims, because it doesn’t account for the thousands of women who gnaw their nails privately and flirt publicly. The ones who use their sexuality to try to smooth out an uneven playing field, because no one else is going to do it for them.
Women like Jane exist, and they’re not usually praised by media that want to keep creating the “noble woman brought low by wicked man” narrative. So they keep quiet. They wonder if they’re doing their entire gender a disservice by entering into tit-for-tat flirtations with their employers, where the tit isn’t necessarily literal, but always implied.
When really, the women who flirt to get ahead at work are trying to make inroads using whatever means available to them. It’s hard for any young person trying to kick-start their career, and it’s a long uphill struggle for women: marred with sexism, the gender pay gap, and the perpetual unease that your “worth” might go down should you choose to have a baby.
If you look at any trendy start-up or big tech company, you’ll see the same thing: a clutch of young women desperately trying to get their careers started, trying desperately to break through to an almost entirely male board of directors.
So, to answer my dad’s question, why does a woman feel guilty about being attracted to a man who’s attracted to her? Because, simply, a whole ocean of power imbalances exist within that attraction, power that is much easier to exploit if you’re the person in charge of promotions and pay packets.
London-based Irish writer Caroline O’Donoghue is the author of Promising Young Women (Virago, approx €20)
This article was originally published in the June 2018 edition of IMAGE Magazine.
*The original copy was edited to include the year “2018” for context.