Funnily enough, the last two books I’ve read have involved affairs in the workplace (well, of sorts) – in both J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, male professors end up in bed with young female students, and the aftermath ruins their careers. The professors are painted as fairly pathetic people, and they accept their fate without much of a struggle, but I was irritated by the depiction of the women in both books (although I haven’t finished The Corrections, so I could be premature in my judgment). Although the female characters are quite different, they’re similar in that they seem to suffer no real consequences from the liaison – it’s simply the men, who choose to have the affair, whose (pathetic) careers are demolished. The women emerge mostly unscathed.
An article by Sylvia Ann Hewlett for the Harvard Business Review earlier this week neatly takes apart the idea that workplace affairs have no consequences for women. Admittedly, she is dealing with more traditional office environments than academia, but there are parallels. Hewlett writes that thirty-four percent of executive women who participated in a Center for Work-Life Policy survey said that they knew a colleague who had slept with the boss (fifteen percent admitted to having done so themselves). Of that group, thirty-seven percent perceived a career pay-off in having done so.
This benefit seems, however, to be mostly in people’s minds. The damage to a team when sex is involved can be severe. Hewlett writes,
“61% of men and 70% of women lose respect for a leader involved in an affair. Most poisonous of all, when a junior woman is having a sexual dalliance with the boss, 60% of male executives and 65% of female executives suspect that salary hikes and plum assignments are being traded for sexual favors.”
Understandably, this does not boost morale around the office. Hewlett paints a dark picture of the office affair, suggesting that both corporations and the legal system play a more proactive role in regulating office romances. But the most disturbing part, for me, was the effect that all of this had on female executives. Because men are afraid of being perceived as having an affair with a female colleague, it’s much harder for women to be hired as executives – because men don’t want to spend the requisite amount of time alone with them that the corporate vetting process requires, or take single women on as mentees.
As a college student, I perceive much the same thing in relationships between male professors and female students – men are much less likely to adopt women as mentees, and I suspect that it’s for largely the same reason. As Coetzee and Franzen illustrate, there are severe consequences for affairs with students, and although their protagonists did in fact sleep with the students in question, the perception that a sexual relationship is happening can be extremely damning for professors.
But this fear also hurts female students, who are denied the opportunity to be mentored by powerful professors, especially since academia is still dominated by men. I don’t know if Hewlett’s suggestions would work well for college campuses, although it’s something that universities should investigate. But I do know one thing: contrary to the impression you might be getting from Franzen and Coetzee, the women are certainly not escaping unscathed.