Sex Sells In Office

Advantage: "The Apprentice," a reality TV program, raises questions about the use of sexual charms to get ahead at work.

February 05, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Bowie Hogg stepped out of a New York City hotel room last fall to begin what has been dubbed "the ultimate job interview." He would compete against 15 others to win a chance to work for New York real estate tycoon Donald J. Trump.

But what Hogg found as he arrived on the set of what has become a prime-time TV hit surprised him: Many of the women he would compete against - intelligent, successful twenty- and thirty-somethings - were clad in mini-skirts and slinky dresses.

"It was kind of shocking that that's what they would choose for a professional outfit. They looked like they were going to a club and not to a business meeting with Donald Trump," said Hogg, who was eliminated - "fired" - from the show on last week's episode. "All the guys are in suits, and I'm going, `All the business women where I come from don't dress like that.' "

The Apprentice is reality television - not real life. But the issue it raised in its early episodes about sex and its misuses in the workplace is real, from sexual harassment to sex discrimination to using sex to get ahead.

In real life, the stereotypes that sex sells and that beauty conquers all remain.

Studies have found that attractive workers typically earn 10 percent to 15 percent more than below-average-looking ones. There's even a term for it: the "beauty premium."

The phenomenon can be attributed in part to beautiful people being more confident and therefore more able to negotiate higher wages, said Tanya S. Rosenblat, an assistant professor of economics at Connecticut's Wesleyan University who is working on a study on the matter. But the rest of the beauty premium is explained by stereotypes perpetuated by employers.

"When the employer sees a more beautiful applicant, he is going to wrongly think that this is a more able applicant," Rosenblat said.

Sexual discrimination and harassment have been problems for as long as women have been in the work force, said Irma Herrera, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates Inc., a San Francisco group that advocates workplace equality for women.

In part, the misbehavior comes from living in a sexual society, where billboard ads for underwear depict near-naked bodies. Women and their sexuality are often used to sell products and create an image of beauty and pleasure, Herrera said, "and it doesn't get parked at the office door. When people get into work, many people view women in sexual terms."

But when women - and men - use their bodies to get ahead, it can blur the lines even further between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, experts said.

"Women have to walk a very difficult line still," said Jeff Bryson, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who studies relationships and stereotyping. "If they deviate too far in acting too much `like a man' they lose in that they are ostracized. If they use their sexuality, they are also put into a stereotyped group."

On NBC's The Apprentice the women seem to be using those stereotypes to their favor. (The latest segment airs tonight at 8:44 o'clock after an extra-long episode of Friends.)

In previous Apprentice episodes, contestants were divided into teams of men and women. Each team had to complete an assignment, from creating an advertising campaign to running a restaurant. Each week, the losing team faces Trump in the boardroom and one of its members gets fired. The last man - or woman - standing wins a job as president of one of Trump's companies for at least a year - and a $250,000 salary.

The dynamic of the show may change tonight as the male-female teams are shuffled into two co-ed groups. But so far, the women have flirted their way to win in a manner so blatant that Donald Trump himself gave them a tongue-lashing for it on last week's show.

"It was kind of sanctimonious when Donald Trump of all people gave them a little lecture, `This is not the way to get ahead,' wherein the entire premise of the show is do whatever you can to get the job," said Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

When the task in one episode was to raise the most money selling lemonade, the women flirted with men on the street, giving out kisses and phone numbers as they sold drinks for $5 a cup. When the task was to earn the most managing the restaurant Planet Hollywood for a night, they put on tight shirts and sold shooters to men at the bar, even persuading some patrons to buy shooters for them.

Hogg, a 25-year-old former contestant, said the women won the tasks but the men still came out on top because of the image they projected.

"These girls probably would have beat us in a couple of tasks anyway if they didn't use the sex, but now they're coming off with such a negative image, it's making them look like the losers overall," Hogg said. "Even though the guys lost the task, I think we won more of Mr. Trump's respect."

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