The Smartest People in the Room: Is using sex appeal smart or unfair?

“Mark unapologetically viewed being a woman – a smart, charismatic woman – as a way to ‘get privileges that other people don’t get, and…audiences that others could never hope to achieve’…Her gender was not an obstacle to be overcome but an advantage” (The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, 72).

Rebecca Mark’s admittance of her willingness to flaunt her femininity intrigued me.  There are many factors that can give an individual power.  Most of these – money, knowledge, skills – are accepted and understood, but one – sex appeal – is more controversial.  Should individuals use their looks to gain influence and control?

What makes using your sex appeal to control others any different from using your money?  Would you feel comfortable gaining power as a result of your appearance?  After all, why do career centers offer seminars on how to dress for interviews?  Yes, respect and professionalism are important, but I contend that it goes beyond that.  The seminars teach individuals to conform to the looks desired of organizations in a particular industry

It seems to me that Rebecca Mark was able to use her gender to her advantage to the large extent that she did because she worked in a male-dominated business.  She unabashedly took advantage of this, working her way up the ranks by “play[ing] up her physical attributes,” wearing “high heels and short skirts,” and sleeping with her boss.  My initial thought was that she didn’t deserve what she got and was unfairly rewarded.  However, further thought made me recognize that perhaps she was just smart.  Maybe the book title should be The Smartest People in the Room.  Why leave Rebecca Mark out?  She understood just as well as the guys how to play the system and take advantage of what she had.

Like Skilling, Lay, and many others, Mark was certainly smart.  The men were unethical, however, and their actions are generally looked down upon.  By gaining power through her femininity, did Rebecca Mark put herself in this category?  I think so…but I don’t blame her.  Society has created a world in which such things are rewarded.  Mark had the intelligence and the charisma, but unfortunately they may not have gotten her anywhere.  Those are the characteristics that should have propelled Mark to the top, but in reality it was only her sex appeal that could do so.

Having established an interest in this topic and a desire to research it further, I pursued various avenues of doing so.  To begin, I wrote a list of keywords dealing with the topic.  I tried to approach the topic from different angles and come up with various words that could be used in searching for relevant sources.  I also used the bibliography in Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural, and Open System Perspectives to look up titles and authors of articles cited in the section about power.  Subsequently, I typed these into Google Scholar to find access to the full-text versions.  Using the list of keywords I created, I performed searches in Google Scholar, Lexis-Nexis, and JStor, scanning the results for relevant information.  Finally, I supplemented this research by finding a useful print source via Bucknell University’s Library Catalog.

To make my researching more effective, I decided to find information on two things: gaining power in an organization and women flaunting their sexuality in the workplace.  The first, dealing with power, is broader but gives me good background knowledge on how power is derived.  The second topic is more focused and allows me to research my topic in more depth.  Put together, I expect that the information that I have found will allow me to analyze this issue well.

The research that I have compiled thus far comes from a variety of mediums, including a book entitled The Sexuality of Organization, research articles on power, and a FORTUNE Magazine article detailing how seven women rose to the top of their respective organizations by skillfully exploiting their sexuality.

Having identified good research sources, I performed a cited reference search.  By examining the number of other items that referenced my sources, I was able to determine the extent to which they were discussed and used by others.  Furthermore, looking at the cited references provided me with some new articles and books that I had not found when performing my initial research.

For me, the most beneficial part of the cited reference search was discovering information that was related but along different lines.  I would not have thought of looking at information on some of these things, but found it useful.  For example, one of my cited reference searches showed lots of articles on the disadvantages females are at in the workplace.  I had not considered this in relation to my topic previously, but it opened my eyes to considering the importance of this.  Perhaps women need to use their sexuality to their advantage because they do not start on par with men in many industries?  After having done this search, it is a topic that I will explore further and consider incorporating into my analysis.

I have taken the first steps in establishing a topic that I am excited to analyze and in compiling good sources to help do so.  Any insight or suggestions that readers may have is welcome!


5 Responses

  1. I think this topic is very interesting! I wrote a paper last semester about women in the Police Force, and the advantages and disadvantages that they faced. I found a number of books in the library that focused on women in the workforce and the obstacles confronting them. Professor Silberman of the Sociology department has edited a book that has a compilation of essays, many of which focus on this topic. Hopefully that will prove beneficial to your research! I think it would be very interesting to research the disadvantages of sex appeal as well. Rebecca Mark was able to use it her advantage, but many women with sex appeal are degraded upon in the workplace. They are sexually harassed and not taken seriously, despite their superior intellect. Looking into some case studies of both successful and non-successful uses of sex appeal could serve to make this paper quite interesting!

    • Thanks Molly! Talking to you about your experience with the topic as I wrote my essay was very useful.

  2. I applaud your approach to a difficult issue that it is often easier to leave unaddressed.

    Since women often start off disadvantaged, it is then even more rational in the narrow sense of the term to use socially constructed ideals of beauty and sexuality to advance their careers. At the same time, what cost does that bear for the Rebecca Marks of the world? Does it distort her capacity to have regular relations outside of the workplace? Does it impose a burden of living a hypocrisy between rhetorical equality of opportunity for women and the reality of the sexualization of their bodies?

    On the theory side, I think you want to think about the differences between power, authority, and influence. Does her sexual or gender performance give her power or authority or influence? How are the three distinct AND related?

    • Thanks for the comments! They were helpful in writing my essay.

  3. […] The Smartest People in the Room: Is using sex appeal smart or unfair? […]

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