Sex and the Working Girl

Grace Bello
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In the Friends episode called "The One With The Prom Video," Monica (Courteney Cox) auditions for a chef job by preparing a salad for a randy fellow who appears to be managing a fetish, rather than a restaurant or catering company. "A salad? Really?" she asks. "I could do something a little more complicated, if you like." But he insists. As she tears a head of lettuce, he asks, "Is it dirty? I like it...dirty." His comments get more and more inappropriate, and ultimately Monica has had enough. "I'm out of here!" she says, walking out on the interview.

In fictional TV narratives, job interviews and negotiations are opportunities for farce. Especially when the manager is male and his subordinate is female, TV writers grab the opportunity to intersect career milestones with heterosexual complications. But when labor economics converge with gender in the real world, the result is far from uproarious.

The American Association of University Women reports that women in their first year out of college make 82% of what their male counterparts earn. This gender pay gap comes, in part, from gender discrimination in the workplace. But it also comes from long-standing internalized cultural messages that keep women from standing up for ourselves when it comes to negotiating salaries and raises. In particular, some of those messages tell us that our sexuality is more valued in the workplace than our professional talents.

WomansWork_Underemployed_DaphneAndBossWe see this depicted on Underemployed. Ad agency intern Daphne (Sarah Habel) asks her boss Todd whether the company will begin to pay her a salary. He tables the issue but asks her out to lunch. In a quickly escalating series of events that gives the reader whiplash, they flirt, have sex in his car, and return to the office; then the next day, she asks him where their relationship is going. He confesses that he already has a girlfriend and that he's not leaving her. Daphne, disappointed, then shifts to the matter of her salary: After all, wouldn't it be unfortunate if the company found out about his misconduct? Under pressure, he offers her not only a salary but a parking space as well.

While Monica opts out of the heteronormative power dynamic, Daphne on Underemployed and Hannah (Lena Dunham) on Girls are complicit in it.

In the episode "Hannah's Diary," Hannah's boss gets touchy-feely. But when she tells her fellow female coworkers that she's uncomfortable, they say that the benefits outweigh the occasional "massages." (Flexible schedules! Health insurance! IPods!) So in the next episode, Hannah decides to consent to her boss's sexual advances: "I am letting you know that it is OK for you to act on this fantasy." It's he who tells her that she's acting inappropriately to her employer. In this instance, a young, female in the workplace chooses not to flee or fight a sexual situation but to welcome it. And in this instance, she loses. She ends up quitting and, futilely, threatening to sue him. "There's no suing app on your iPhone," he quips.

Yes, Monica, Daphne, and Hannah are fictional characters. But their decisions in the face of sexual advances from male employers illustrate a very real issue. Many women, like Daphne, feel like their sexuality is their main source of leverage in a male-dominated workforce. (In fact, controversial sociologist Catherine Hakim urges women to use their "erotic capital" in the workplace.) And while using your feminine wiles in the office is your prerogative, I propose that it's more psychologically and financially rewarding to sell yourself without, ahem, selling yourself.

Trust your talent, intelligence, and value in the workplace. Don't be afraid to highlight your achievements and negotiate for a greater starting salary, better benefits, or a higher raise.

You can bring value to your work without bringing your milkshake to the negotiating table.


Read more of this guest blog Women's Work, which explores TV portrayals of young women in the workforce.

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