BBC2′s ‘Shopgirls: the True Story of Life Behind The Counter’ reveals how the rise of ‘shopgirls’, well-dressed women employed to work on the floor in retail, caused the unanticipated consequence of giving women a pathway into more prestigious forms of labour. Who knew what a slick of rouge or a tailored outfit could achieve!
Once hired on the basis of their looks and charm, many of these women managed to prove that their skills were far beyond the call of duty, allowing them to transcend the role they had been chosen for. Today, British women are rising to CEO positions, not only in the fashion industry, but in Fortune 500 companies such as General Motors’ Mary Barra and Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman.
The notion that female appearance was the driving force behind women ‘tricking’ their way into the male workforce taps into an interesting contemporary debate: should women use their looks to get ahead in the workplace? Whilst women use a variety of means to succeed in their careers, the progress of the shopgirl, who was expected to display her looks in the public sphere, illustrates just how effectively an attractive woman was able to push through age-old social barriers.
Dr. Catherine Hakim suggests in her book ‘Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital’ that a ‘combination of beauty, sex appeal, skills of self-presentation and social skills’ are crucial ways to get ahead, not only in the ‘erotic industries’ (ie the entertainment industry and, of course, the sex industry) but in every workplace. She coins her insight as a study of ‘sexeconomics’. Whilst many might consider such a strategy as inappropriate or even manipulative, Hakim argues that it is simply a matter of being ‘agreeable company’; a relative necessity for ascending the career ladder.
And what about for those who are not so naturally blessed with their appearance? This philosophy should not hold them back. Hakim, whilst slim with model-like cheekbones, was no Christina Hendricks, even in her heyday. However, Hakim is an advocate of making the best with what you do have, rather than criticising whatever fortune you gained from the genetic lottery. She heralds the French concept of the belle laide: the woman who is attractive rather than conventionally beautiful, the literal translation being ‘the beautiful ugly woman’.
There is little to criticise in Hakim’s reasonable tactic of maintaining good grooming in a professional environment. The real source of controversy is her suggestion that women should not only be well-presented, but also flirtatious and sexually appealing towards their employers. Is this not a little inappropriate, given that any man presumed to make sexual advances to a fellow employee—whether junior or senior—is vulnerable to a sexual harassment suit? Or would the working world be a better, or indeed more equal, place if women made the same flirtatious comments towards their coworkers that they all-too-often receive? The central issue here, I believe, is one linked with society’s attitude towards sexuality as a whole, which renders ‘sexy’ women passive objects of the male gaze, whilst a man’s sexuality is inextricably linked with his more domineering qualities (think ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’). In other words, the double standards surrounding sexuality in the work place reinforce the same gender inequalities that women are desperate to overcome.
What if this could be changed? Surely if women were more confident about taking their sexuality into their own hands, they could use it in the same way as men: to influence others. It is no coincidence that male CEOs, on average, are 6”0 tall and attractive, a ‘sexual’ presence supporting their dreams of leadership. Should women be blamed for wanting to use equivalent qualities—a slim figure or large breasts- to get to the same prestigious position as their male counterparts?
The trouble is that, in the same way that shopgirls were once expected by their clientele to serve as prostitutes behind closed stockroom doors, women who use their looks to succeed in the workplace often receive unwanted attention or even sordid requests. Nor is this attention always unwanted. Like the handful of shop girls who turned to prostitution in order to subsidise their wages, Wolf of Wall Street-esque stories of sex in the workplace scandalise a would-be innocent environment. Yet, stories of inappropriate sexual affairs in the workplace are an age-old issue. Such scandals—or, indeed, fantasies—should not be associated with every good-looking woman who walks into an office, nor should all women who are charming, even flirtatious, be tarred with the same brush.
So while it remains a controversial issue of whether one’s appearance should be used to complement their employability, this should by no means be a gendered issue.
‘You have to flirt’, a male acquaintance once explained, ‘that’s just business’
Is that right? I don’t know. What I do believe is that female employees should have the right to act in exactly as their male counterparts do, without a vastly different verdict on their behaviour.
Hey, it worked for the shopgirls.