Skip to main content

The story of a powerful male leader who sleeps with a subordinate never fails to titillate the masses – just think of Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Last week a couple more were added to the long list, including former CIA director David Petraeus and Christopher Kubasik, slated to be Lockheed Martin's next CEO.

There seems to be a pre-existing template for how this narrative normally plays out, particularly in the media. An innocuous event, in Mr. Petraeus's case, the discovery of an e-mail, triggers a chain reaction that often forces the female lead into the role of home-wrecker or lady scorned. The male protagonist often comes across as tragically flawed or an egomaniac who lives by his own rules. Since an extra-marital affair in our current social context is viewed as an error of judgment, the ending inevitably includes public humiliation and resignation.

This narrative needs to change.

First, women need to stop being portrayed as the home-wreckers who destroy powerful men. This plays into the notion of an otherwise good man brought down by a siren's call.

Secondly, we need to question if a consensual sexual encounter should spell the end of a hard-earned career – for men or women – even if that relationship involves a junior employees.

The logic implies that being unfaithful to one's partner translates into an inability for employees, shareholders or constituents to uphold their trust. Can we really make that leap?

Here's the truth – men and women, powerful or not, engage in extra-marital affairs, and quite frequently they start at work. In fact, Noel Biderman, the founder and CEO of Ashley Madison, a dating site for the married, views his biggest competitor not to be Facebook, where individuals can comfortably look up former lovers, or even other dating sites, but the workplace.

"It turns out that women, just like men, when they are on the road, working hard in stressful jobs, and are 50 kilometres-plus away from their families, tend to make different decisions about how faithful they want to be," explained Mr. Biderman, who is sometimes referred to as "The King of Infidelity." From his observations, Mr. Biderman says how financially independent a woman is appears to be the single, biggest factor contributing to her having an affair.

Ashley Madison surveyed over 23,000 North American members in October and discovered that 37 per cent of women and 46 per cent of men admitted to an office romance. Of those, the majority had their first encounter at an office holiday party.

Nearly 95 per cent of both men and women surveyed fantasized about a colleague.

Affairs are part of many marriages, noted Susan Shapiro Barash, the author of The Nine Phases of Marriage: How to Make it, Break It, Keep It. According to her research, affairs are on the rise as more women enter the workplace but that doesn't mean their public acceptability has changed.

"Because women garner more power in the workplace today than ever before, they trade in the same currency as men have historically. They can have a boy toy, an appealing younger man, as their fling, or a more serious affair with someone of equal power, or near equal power," observed Ms. Barash.

"The stakes are always high when an affair begins, especially in the corporate world, but the rewards are there too. Women feel as entitled as do men to these types of affairs," she added.

Ms. Barash views the public's fascination with high-profile men who cheat as evidence of a puritanical mindset that classifies an affair as a "chink in one's armour."

"Few say, 'I wonder what was missing in the marriage.' Few say that mutual attraction doesn't subscribe to the marriage contract," Ms. Barash said. "In Europe, this wouldn't be front-page news."

Even affairs that take place outside of the office context appear to taint one's professional capabilities. Dr. Kate Rowbotham, an assistant professor at Queen's School of Business, researched how non-work affairs are perceived at the office. She discovered that employees often expect the employer to censure the offending individual but that's not easily accomplished if one's performance remains sound.

"It can be a frustrating situation for a co-worker who doesn't want to work with the person who had the affair, the person who had the affair and who just wants to ignore it – or at least not have it affect his or her work – and the workplace who has to manage it all," explained Dr. Rowbotham.

For the most part, the person in a position of power is male and stories of female executives sleeping with more junior employees remain a caricature, à la Demi Moore in the film, Disclosure, she observed.

How would a powerful woman fare in a publicly exposed affair? Likely worse, I imagine, since it would challenge the stereotype about women's inferior libido. Fortunately, the media and the masses will have to wait until that inevitable top female executive or politician gets outed. Hopefully by then, we can shrug it off and remember that bedroom antics need not affect the boardroom.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.