Should Women Use Sex Appeal to Close the Wage Gap?
According to a new book, the best way for women to try to close the wage gap is to flaunt their sex appeal in the office. There’s even a new term for it: “erotic capital.”
Catherine Hakim, a fellow at the London School of Economics, just published the controversial†Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom. (Yeah, you read that title right.) Basically, the premise is that everyone has some level of sex appeal; different people have different levels and different people use it differently. In this way, it is much like economic capital (wealth): some are born with trust funds, others are paupers; some invest their money, others spend it. But this erotic capital, according to Hakim, affects peoples’ life trajectories in much the same way that net worth does. This is one of the reasons why the wage gap persists – women just don’t know how to use their erotic capital as much as men do.
So far, this kind of makes sense. There is a lot of evidence that shows that people who are rated as subjectively more attractive make more money than those who are not. Most people agree that this is probably a bad thing. In a new book, Daniel Hamermash argues that people who are discriminated against because of their appearance should have the right to sue for damages. As he wrote recently in the New York Times, “why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?”
Hakim, though, disagrees, saying in an interview that it’s OK to discriminate in the workplace based on appearance, much as one might “discriminate between good restaurants and bad restaurants.” She then goes on to say that “there is absolutely no reason to feel ashamed of exploiting [attractiveness] and no reason at all to be embarrassed at saying this has value. Having erotic capital isn’t something you sort of turn on and turn off like turning on a tap or faucet, in the same way that intelligence isn’t something you either switch on or switch off.”† And since men have an insatiable need for sex, women should just play into that.
Woah Nelly. There is so much wrong in those few lines, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it. First off, her entire premise is based around the idea that women aren’t trying as hard as men to be attractive. To that, I say watch any TV show or commercial or read any book ever.
Beyond that, though, Hakim assumes that sex appeal is something intrinsically important to everyone’s job and career. And all this time, I thought it was about the quality of work I was producing! Silly me. Suggesting to women that the best way for them to make more money is to play on their looks is almost straight out of Mad Men; it’s retrograde, sexist and sounds like whomever said it had three too many martinis at lunch.
Indeed, the problem isn’t that women aren’t doing enough to make themselves look pretty — it’s that the entire system was built to be stacked against them. Instead of worrying about whether or not women are sexy enough to compete in the office, we should be worrying about what real life policies could reduce the wage gap — like enforcing equal work for equal pay laws and making it easier for women to take maternity leave without seeing their pay or careers stalled.
But then, why try to solve all of those hard, big-kid problems when you just say women who don’t get ahead are ugly and call it a day?
Photo credit: je@n's Flickr stream.