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Playing the sex card to get ahead (Comstock/Getty Images/Comstock Images)
Playing the sex card to get ahead (Comstock/Getty Images/Comstock Images)

women at work

Playing the sex card to get ahead Add to ...

If you want to invest in your career, do you choose an exorbitantly priced executive MBA or an expensive wardrobe and a personal trainer?

The latter option sounds ludicrous unless you've been following the media storm over the new book Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. In the book, Ms. Hakim argues that “erotic capital,” which she defines as the “combination of beauty, sex appeal, skills of self-presentation and social skills” is as valuable as education and social networks when it comes to economic gains. This mix of physical and social attributes presumably makes women and men the types of colleagues you want to spend the bulk of your waking hours with.

While naturally beautiful and socially astute women and men hold an advantage, Ms. Hakim notes that anyone can increase their erotic capital. Boosting your appeal can be as simple as smiling or it can include dieting, personal trainers, fashion and even plastic surgery. Although erotic capital can be used by men and women alike, Ms. Hakim feels that women have a longer tradition of developing and exploiting it.

The good news is being attractive no longer insinuates a lack of intelligence. Blond jokes have become a relic of the past century. But Ms. Hakim's anti-feminist rhetoric has generated no shortage of harsh detractors. “I'm sorry. Did I fall asleep and wake up in the 1950s?” wrote one reviewer in the Guardian. In fact, Ms. Hakim openly blasts Western “radical feminism” for diminishing the importance of a woman's sex appeal, provocatively asking, “Why does no one encourage women to exploit men whenever they can?”

Leaving aside the second half of Ms. Hakim's argument, that men suffer from a “sex deficit” that influences their attitudes, anecdotal evidence does seem to indicate that attractive and socially savvy people often get ahead. If this is our advantage as women, we should embrace it.

To some degree, many professionals already internalize this argument. “We have very little time to make a first impression,” explains Erin Miller, an image consultant and human resources professional in Toronto. Ms. Miller refers to research from New York University that claims a person has seven seconds to make a first impression. In those crucial seconds, your new acquaintance, who could be a client or a future boss, has made all kinds of assumptions about you. Capitalizing on those non-verbal few seconds can translate into a sale or a new job.

Ms. Miller founded her business after years in recruiting, where she saw first-hand the importance image played. She recalls a particular candidate she interviewed while working in the financial services industry, who looked perfect on paper, possessing all the qualifications her employer desired.

“When I met with her in person, there was a huge disconnect between the person I spoke to on the phone and the résumé in front of me and the person in front of me,” recalls Ms. Miller, who gently coached the candidate on her attire as well as her responses. The candidate eventually landed the job.

Ms. Miller says most women who seek her services are motivated at least in part by their work. Some may be looking for a new career while others seek to elevate their influence within their current position.

“People want to work with others that are gracious, that are perceived to be intelligent, outgoing and confident. These are all things that can work to your advantage,” she says.

So how far should one go to enhance their appeal? According to a recent poll by the American Association of Plastic Surgeons, 13 per cent of working-age women would consider a cosmetic medical procedure to make them more competitive, with 3 per cent admitting they have undergone a procedure to increase their value in the work force.

Hillary Gadsby, who runs a marketing and branding firm in Santa Monica, Calif., acknowledges using her physical appeal to get ahead.

“It is all about appearance, especially in my industry,” Ms. Gadsby says. “I am known for being dressed to the nines wherever I go and I feel that is an attribute that has contributed to my success. But I also believe I'm very good at what I do, which keeps me successful.”

While playing up one's appearances and social graces may get you through the door, employees need to back up the promise of expertise that comes from looking the part. Those without the necessary skills are quickly unmasked, which can damage their personal brand, Ms. Miller says. “It's really a bit of window dressing.”

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Follow on Twitter: @LeahEichler

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