Addicted to Power, Addicted to Beauty

The #MeToo movement has shaken the corporate world to its core. Every day seems to give rise to a new story of unbelievably bad behavior, poor judgment, and elaborate hush-money schemes. One thing is clear, insidious cultures designed to cover and even reward egregious behavior are on their way out.

But how do decades of looking the other way, accepting clichéd gender roles, and valuing different attributes for men and women get corrected? Companies are challenged to create an equal playing field for all, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or appearance. But years of mandated sexual harassment training have done little to improve matters, particularly if both sides are willing to play the game.

Currently, the spotlight is on heterosexual relationships where a man of power forges a quid pro quo relationship with an attractive woman seeking a career break. We readily acknowledge that most men rank a woman’s physical appearance as an influential quality, while women are attracted to power and success. This dynamic plays a big role in office politics and often becomes fodder for watercooler discussions. Sadly, our personal addictions and unconscious preferences can foster as much deceit and drama within the workplace as a Verdi opera.

Men still hold the majority of leadership roles within corporations. This allows them tremendous influence as to who gets hired and promoted. While discrimination cases can be made when obvious opportunities are denied to certain classes of people, few lawsuits are filed claiming unfair bias based on physical attractiveness.

Nevertheless, when the economy failed in 2008, rumors swirled regarding a global professional services firm’s large reduction-in-force and a much-talked-about memorandum from a senior partner requesting that none of the “hot” women in his location be let go. A plain Jane’s contributions, skills, and work ethic may not be valued in an environment that protects leadership before protecting company morale or profitability. But few women want to speak up about losing a job because the boss found someone else more attractive.

Are we to blame women who rely on their appearance for an edge in navigating success? What if the attractive woman receiving a promotion is also highly skilled and competent? Beautiful women who are prosperous may not be able to decipher how much their appearance impacts their career unless they have purposely dangled the attribute in front of a man in power. And attractive women too often find themselves in compromising situations they would prefer to avoid.

Behavior that is based on personal agendas on either side of the workplace equation destroys trust and ultimately an organization’s culture. The first step in improving our unfair world is for people to make decisions more objectively and behave accordingly. Those in power and those seeking power must carefully examine their motives and act with the utmost integrity. Our chance for true equality is greatly improved when we master our base failings. Let’s take a lesson from those Verdi operas that never end well and strive to take the high road for a happier and fairer story.