Sex Appeal and the MBA

In a recent episode of Fox’s new sitcom The New Girl, Zooey Deschanel’s normally-frumpy character, Jess, is asked by a male roommate to accompany him as his date to a wedding in order to make his ex-girlfriend jealous. For the occasion, the male roommate tells Jess that she needs to wear a dress that will basically turn heads.

She does, and the episode descends into a zany, mischievous lark, where the ex-girlfriend does not get jealous, but rather happy that the male roommate has moved on and has apparently found somebody else. Jess’ experiences bring up the idea of “erotic capital” – that women (generally, although the concept can apply to men, too) can take advantage of their looks and sex appeal to persuade and coerce.

Catherine Hakim might say that Jess leveraged her erotic capital in an attempt to affect a social situation. Hakim is the author of Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, a recent book that has been making waves among some book reviewers and social critics.

In a review of the book in a recent edition of Maclean’s, columnist Anne Kingston says the book posits that womens’ erotic capital can be as functional as a degree, and can be used advantageously to climb the corporate ladder, although, according to Kingston’s reading of Hakim, has been suppressed:

Hakim claims heterosexual women’s erotic capital and fertility—their “greatest trump cards”—have been systematically undervalued and suppressed by religious fundamentalists, the “patriarchy” and even “radical feminists” who want to “restrict women’s ability to benefit from their one major advantage over men, and to humiliate women who gain money or status through such activities.”

So, the question is, can developing erotic capital indeed be a better investment than an MBA? One major problem is that the benefits of erotic capital are hard to quantify. One might pay, on average, over $7,000 for breast enlargement surgery or $1,000 for a single Botox injection – but statistics to determine whether this is an effective investment in terms of career advancement are next to impossible to get. Other than hearsay, we can’t be sure if that money spent provides any real benefit when climbing the corporate ladder. On the other hand, the return on investment for an MBA is pretty easy to determine – if you pay $89,200 for an MBA from Wharton, you can be fairly certain that you’ll see a return: on average, Wharton grads see salary increases of 132% – which is a solid investment.

Many critics have seized upon Hakim’s research, and it has predictably become somewhat of a lightning rod for proxy arguments over gender equality and discrimination. However, Hakim’s views may not be as titillating as many critics make them out to be. In a piece Hakim recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal, she provides a more nuanced look at her views of erotic capital:

Beauty is not limited to supermodels and A-list celebrities. It can be achieved by wearing flattering styles, getting in shape, improving posture and putting some effort into choosing clothing and hairstyles.

And erotic capital is not just about physical attractiveness. It also encompasses personality, charm, liveliness, social energy and the ability to make people feel at ease and want to know you. It is not about flaunting your sexuality at the office by showing more cleavage and wearing tight pants.

In this sense, maybe what we should take away from this is that, even for relatively unattractive people (or men, or people who are hesitant to drop thousands on body augmentation,) is that “soft skills,” like self-presentation and making people feel at ease, can be effective tools for climbing the corporate ladder. Investing in a good, professional wardrobe or public speaking lessons can at the very least boost one’s confidence and help with networking and persuasion.

In this realm, MBA programs can indeed help. In recent years, some MBA programs have acknowledged this need, and have begun supplementing traditionally technical curriculums with a broader focus on “soft skills.” Warwick Business School, for example, has set up a behavioral science group that draws on disciplines like psychology and neuroscience to help students better interpret how humans behave in social situations. And Columbia Business School offers its “Program on Social Intelligence,” that, according to Columbia’s website “helps students sharpen their self-awareness, judgment and decision making, and expand their abilities to solve problems.”

Developing one’s soft skills, in the context of an MBA program, guarantees a more solid return on investment than focusing solely on “erotic capital.” And this approach distinct advantages: in a globalized business world, having the social skills to grasp cultural differences and nuances is inherently much more valuable than being able to show more cleavage.

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