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The Present

Men are likelier than women to flirt their way to the top of the workplace

The findings contradict a widespread belief.
flirting
Credit: JustLife / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • There are two popular notions regarding workplace flirting. The first is that men in positions of power use it to take advantage of (usually) younger, more junior women. The second is that women use flirting to advance their careers. 
  • A new study shows that there is some truth to this. 
  • But its most notable finding is that it is men rather than women who seem likelier to flirt to get ahead.

Workplace dynamics can be hard to navigate with all the gossip and politics. Then there’s the byzantine world of office flirting. And as society has grappled with over the past few years, the line between innocent banter and sexual harassment is occasionally razor-thin.

There are two popular notions regarding workplace flirting. The first is that men in positions of power use it to take advantage of (usually) younger, more junior women. The second is that women use flirting to advance their careers. Is there truth to any of this?

Yes and no. New research published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes investigated various aspects of sexual behavior in the workplace and found, contrary to conventional wisdom, that men are likelier to flirt their way to the top.

Look who’s flirting

To test why individuals flirt at work, the authors used the concept of social sexual identity. This is a self-reported metric that describes how individuals perceive themselves as flirts. Individuals with a strong social sexual identity engage in flirting to pursue their personal goals. In a series of studies, the authors then compared this self-identity with social sexual behavior, an umbrella term that describes behaviors ranging from casual flirting and sexual innuendos to outright sexual harassment.

In the first study, participants were asked to imagine a scenario in which they have a strong working relationship with a colleague of the opposite gender. They were asked if they would ever initiate flirting, such as giving provocative glances or discussing sex life. Men with strong social sexual identities said that they would do so more often than others.

In another study, men and women were provided an opportunity to get acquainted online with a fictitious coworker of the opposite gender. They could ask their coworker any question from a list of sexually loaded ones (“What’s your idea of a good time?”) and harmless ones (“What’s your idea of a good job?”). Men asked questions from the former category more often than women did.

Among men, those tasked with demonstrating that they are more important than their colleagues were more likely to ask inappropriate questions than those tasked with building a positive working relationship. This suggested that one underlying reason for men’s workplace flirting is a desire to portray themselves as more dominant.

In another study, participants were told that they would work together with a teammate, and one would play the boss, the other a subordinate. All participants were matched with a teammate of the opposite gender and told that their partners were good-looking people who frequently used Tinder. They could then ask their partner either a sexually loaded question or a more innocent one. Interestingly, subordinate men picked the sexually loaded question not only more often than women (in both roles) but also more often than the men assigned to play bosses. This suggests that it is men, rather than women, who are likelier to “flirt their way to the top.”

To flirt or not to flirt

Though it gets a bad reputation, workplace flirting has its benefits: It relieves stress, enhances the self-esteem of employees, and may even boost productivity. Being seen as a flirt signals the kind of charm and extraversion that could open opportunities for employees.

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But, as is so often the case, many people (usually men) don’t understand that their behavior is unwanted or perceived as too aggressive. Flirting to get ahead requires some tact and common sense.


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