Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan may not have heard of British sociologist Catherine Hakim, but the two appear to agree on one thing: using sexuality to succeed in the workplace is acceptable.
Khan’s take on the Bollywood casting couch is pragmatic. If an ambitious young artiste chooses that particular route to success, why treat her as a victim and hold the film industry responsible? She is quite right in saying that the casting couch culture exists across the board, in every profession and workplace, despite strict guidelines against sexual harassment. Congress MP Renuka Chowdhury has pointed to its prevalence in politics. Women politicians, regardless of their capability, are often linked to their male mentors/patrons. (Mamata Banerjee is an exception).
Catherine Hakim created a stir by arguing that women are justified in parleying their ‘erotic capital’ – beauty, social skills, fashion sense, fitness, liveliness, sex appeal and sexual competence — into gaining an advantage over egotistical male colleagues. She holds that the patriarchy seeks to undermine women by dubbing overt femininity as somehow immoral and dangerous. Women who use their charm to get ahead are characterised as vamps. Thus, the puritan concept of feminine ‘wiles’.
In her book, ‘Erotic Capital: The power of attraction in the boardroom and the bedroom’, Hakim says that female sexuality is a major asset that translates into tangible financial returns. It is just as valid as social, economic and cultural capital. Some politicians in India, it must be noted, deploy their ‘spiritual capital’ or ‘dynastic capital’ to get elected!
Most women will acknowledge that sexual energy is the elephant in the office; it is in your face but treated as invisible. Only when it is used as currency does it become a subject of water cooler debate.
If some women use their sexuality to get ahead, where does that leave the ones who don’t? All other things being equal, a male boss will inevitably prefer a woman who charms him over her less well-favoured colleagues. That’s human nature. However unfair this sad fact of life seems, Hakim is correct in characterising attractiveness as an asset in the workplace. On the flip side, beauty can also prove a liability. Women run the risk of being evaluated on the basis of their looks alone. Thus, an attractive woman who gets a promotion is assumed to have deployed her femininity rather than her talent and becomes a target of vicious gossip.
Hakim points out that the ability of women to parley charm into professional success is based on male vulnerability. If men were immune to female sexuality, women wouldn’t have that advantage. Admittedly, men are also capable of using flirtation as a manipulative tool, but less so than women. As more women enter the workplace and become bosses, the question of reverse discrimination may arise. A woman’s attractiveness could work against, rather than for her. Ideally, talent and hard work should make gender irrelevant. In the current male-dominated scenario, women find it difficult to get a foot in the door without male patronage. Their sexuality can and does level the playing field with men. The question is: how far are they willing to go and at what point does their erotic advantage become more important than their skills and hard work?
Consensual flirtation is one thing, sexual favours are another. A woman possessed of considerable erotic capital but unwilling to engage with her boss beyond mild flirtation, may find herself at a disadvantage vis-a-vis less attractive colleagues who are open to dispensing sexual favours.
That said, there is no substitute for talent and dedication. As Khan pointed out, the casting couch is not a rite of passage. A gifted artiste will succeed without it. In this, she is absolutely correct.
It’s true that a casting director may overlook talent, if offered sexual favours by someone with lesser flair. Similarly, in politics, a party leader may nominate a woman candidate on the basis of her ‘availability’ rather than her ‘winnability’. In finance, a woman banker may be promoted because she is cosy with the boss rather than her competence.
But promoting women on the basis of their erotic capital alone comes at a heavy cost. A film may flop because of an incompetent artiste, a party may lose an election because of a weak candidate and a bank may suffer a crisis because of an incompetent executive. Most bosses, male or female, are invested in promoting capable people, because an inept protégée reflects on them.
The inescapable conclusion is that equality between men and women in the workplace will go a long way in eradicating the ‘casting couch’ culture.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.