The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
The story of a powerful male leader who sleeps with a subordinate never fails to titillate the masses. The examples appear countless and last week a couple more were added to the 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 artifact, in Petraeus’s case an email, triggers a chain reaction that quickly unravels, forcing the female lead into 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 translates into an error of judgwment, 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. It defies reason that these men were forcibly brought down by a siren’s call.
Secondly, we need to question why a consensual sexual encounter spells the end of a hard-earned career – for men or women. 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 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 km 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, financial independence is the single, biggest factor contributing to a woman having an affair.
Ashley Madison surveyed over 23,000 North American members in October and discovered that 37 percent of women and 46 percent of men admitted to an office romance. Of those, the majority had their first encounter at an office holiday party.
Almost 95 percent of both men and women surveyed fantasized about a colleague.
Affairs are a phase in 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 their public acceptability hasn’t 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 armor.”
“Few say, I wonder what was missing in the marriage. Few say that mutual attraction doesn’t subscribe to the marriage contract,” observed Ms. Barash. “In Europe, this wouldn’t be front-page news,” she added.
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 workplace 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 coworker 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 offending party appears to be male and stories of female executives sleeping with more junior employees remains a caricature, a 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 additional 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 impact the boardroom.