Which gender pays a higher price for office romance?

Which gender pays a higher price for office romance? thumbnail

If Monica Lewinsky taught us nothing else, it’s that dating the boss is a really bad career move — at least for the employee. For the boss, not so much.

While Bill Clinton had the inconvenience of appearing before a Grand Jury, he also went on to enjoy higher presidential approval ratings and now has his sights set on becoming the first First Gentlemen of the United States. Lewinsky, in contrast, has never really recovered.

This grossly unequal treatment isn’t reserved for White House interns.

HR professional Jane Hollman says she’s observed many office romances, and the subsequent fallout for the women involved.

“I have seen plenty of office affairs (between peers and between senior and junior staff) and not once have I seen the man’s reputation tarnished. It’s always the woman whose career and reputation suffer,” says Hollman who has 25 years experience in the corporate world.

But research published last week in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationshipssuggests that while this issue is about gender, it’s also about power.

When it comes to office relationships, the person who is the most junior, in terms of the organisational hierarchy, pays a high price for the romance. Given the gender makeup of most workplaces, more often than not, the less powerful person also happens to be the women.

In two separate studies, researchers from the University of New South Wales and Australian National University found that any employee — male or female — who has a heterosexual relationship with their boss is less likely to get a promotion or be considered for internal training programs.

In the first study 145 people were asked to review an application from a senior associate in a law firm, and then advise on his/her suitability for promotion to partner.

Study participants were shown a CV and given a brief description about the candidate. The only differences were gender (some candidates had obviously male names such of Christopher and others had obviously female names such as Cynthia), and embedded within the introduction of some candidates was that they were in a romantic relationship with his/her superior.

Both female and male study participants were significantly less likely to promote candidates who were dating their boss.

But men who were dating female bosses were even more likely to be discriminated against than women dating male bosses.

In the second study, 239 participants were asked to decide whether a candidate should be selected for a two-year full-time MBA program, followed by a promotion.

As with the first study, the researchers found that candidates dating their bosses were less likely to be selected than candidates who weren’t in a relationship with their superior.

And again, if the candidate was a man dating a female boss, he was significantly less likely to be chosen for the training opportunity than women dating male bosses.

The researchers write that their findings are a caution to people who are dating, or have plans to date, their boss — especially for men.

“Evidence of past achievements is likely to be discounted when individuals are involved in romantic relationships with higher status partners,” write the study authors.

This is a rare occasion when male employees face greater discrimination in the workplace than women.

But before we chalk this up as evidence that women rule the world and alert the Men’s Rights Activists to yet another feminist conspiracy, let’s examine the reasons why men pay a higher price for dating their boss.

Lead researcher Suzanne Chan-Serafin hypothesises that men are penalised more harshly for dating their bosses because they are not adhering to the accepted dating stereotype.

“Men who date higher status women are negatively evaluated in a biased manner because such types of relationships are rare and violate traditional gender roles. Men are expected to be higher in status,” Chan-Serafin says in response to an email.

“This, in turn, activates in the evaluators’ minds, and reminds them that these men are indeed of lower status in the organisation,’ she says.

Culturally we don’t have much good to say about the men or the women who reverse the dating power balance. The women are ‘sugar mamas’ or ‘cougars’, while the men are ‘whipped’.

There are even resources offering advice on “How to ‘stay manly’ and deal with feeling emasculated” for men who date high status women.

“If she seems to like the idea of stripping you of your manhood, well, you have to decide whether or not you are into that sort of thing,” writes Hilary Sheinbaum for Men’s Fitness.

Our attitudes towards men who date more powerful women says a lot about how women are used to define masculinity. A lower status woman helps to make a man appear and feel powerful and valid. A higher status woman does the opposite.

Dating a powerful woman is seen as a sign of weakness and submissiveness, which is pretty much the worst thing a man can be in a workplace, and in life more generally.

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