Friday, April 1, 2016

When Ethics and Common Sense Should First Guide Research, before Empirical Evidence or Theory: “Flirt Like Sue!”

As an LSE alumna from the Department of Management, I receive email notifications when new blog posts are posted on the department’s blog. Most of the times I dismiss the emails, but this time, the title was too interesting not to dismiss. The snippet from the email read “If flirting makes assertive women more likable, does it also result in better outcomes in negotiations?” The blog post by Dr. Connson Locke was based on her co-authored research paper titled “Feminine Charm: An Experimental Analysis of Its Costs and Benefits in Negotiations” published in 2012.

Since I am a PhD student, therefore, I consider myself a researcher. But to respond to this blog post, I am not going to fully put on my researcher’s hat, but rather my sarcastic feminist blogger’s hat. I am not going to write about how theories contradict with or conform to what came in the blog post or paper. I am going to bore you a bit about my idea of the appropriateness of research on this topic in the first place.

The blog post comes up with ideas like “there is reason to believe that flirtation might be a useful negotiation tactic”. To overcome stereotyping of a masculine white-male dominated corporate culture, a woman could “soften her image and be more influential, a female negotiator could potentially use flirtation.” I thought stereotyping can be fought in other ways? Hmm… well the author clearly identifies flirting as a tactic, she says “flirtation can be an effective tactic but only if it is enacted with skill!”

For the “charming” research paper, the authors find that “the degree to which flirtatiousness was conveyed over and above friendliness predicted better economic deals for female negotiators”. This is an important finding, but how does the paper handle it? “Feminine charm appears to be a uniquely feminine technique for managing negotiator impressions, increasing the proverbial negotiating pie, and, depending on its balance of friendliness and flirtatiousness, determining how resources are divided between the sexes”.

I posted a comment on the blog that this research centers on the objectification of women and research should not be driven by non-ethical Machiavellian approaches. I am not sure this comment is going to be published or not. I don’t really care to be honest, because in this age, everyone has his/her own social media platform to respond.
It is no wonder that Dr Locke and her colleagues didn’t find much literature about flirtation in the workplace, because things like that can be found in the what-not-to-do-at-work handbooks that I would personally write before giving out to employees I manage. To clarify, I am not against researching flirtation as a way of understanding how people use it to compensate for their lack of persuasive negotiation skills to achieve specific outcomes, and discussing how to use other methods in the workplace to replace this phenomenon. It is common-sense to me that men can be allured by women and seduced in the workplace, and it is also common-sense that it can backfire and not always produce the best results, because it depends on the playful man being manipulated by the woman! So, the hassle of doing experiments to tell women that they can flirt to negotiate better is not a new finding, but rather a new daring way of calling out for this to be used more, because it turned out that it is statistically significant to flirt!

To talk about flirtation as a skill deepens my disgust at the objectification of women, picturing them as inefficient managers/employees/negotiators who are unable to achieve outcomes in their workplace without using their body language as a persuasive tool. Even though the paper mentions that flirtation can compensate for the stereotyping of women as being bad negotiators, it actually deepens this stereotyping even more. It is insulting not only to women, but also to the idea of doing business or achieving anything in that manner, using what the authors called “skill”!

The other problem that is evident in the paper is the way the researchers conducted one of the experiments by giving out two scenarios to people and asked for their response.

Participants read a hypothetical scenario where they were asked to imagine that they were selling a car (worth US$1,200) to a potential buyer named Sue. They were told that they were about to meet the buyer, who had indicated a desire to purchase the vehicle pending the results of a test drive.
We manipulated the presence or absence of feminine charm by varying the buyer’s behavior in the scenario. Participants in the feminine charm condition read,

As you meet and shake hands, Sue smiles at you warmly and says, “What a pleasure to meet you” You chat about the weather as Sue takes off her coat and sits down. Looking you up and down, Sue leans forward, briefly touches your arm and says, “You’re even more charming in person than over email.” Then, somewhat playfully, she winks at you and says, “What’s your best price?”

Participants in the neutral style condition read,

“As you meet and shake hands, Sue smiles and says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” You chat about the weather as Sue takes off her coat and sits down. Looking you directly in the eye, Sue says, “I’m looking forward to talking over the financials with you and hopefully working out a deal today. Let’s get down to business.” Then, somewhat seriously, she says, “What’s your best price?”

As a woman myself, I wouldn’t use these two approaches at all! The first one is completely inappropriate and cheap for doing to someone I am meeting for the first time. In some societies, these words can be considered a signal for further “stuff” and men can start harassing or coming after women after this signal is given.  The second scenario is not friendly for neither men nor women, and it is not “neutral” as the authors say. The attitude is clearly unfriendly or too straightforward that people can hardly get any good negotiations out of it.

If it were me, I would be friendly and “reasonable”! I grew up in a society that has 99% of its women physically and verbally harassed in the streets or at work on daily basis. Many women in my society actually wish they were men so that they wouldn’t have to go through ordeals of being scared wherever they go or because of whatever they say. I learnt how to be masculine in the way I walk in the streets, but also friendly with people who I should be friendly with. I wonder if flirtation is a valid “skill” in a context like mine for example, if it is something women has to use to even make themselves feel worse about their bodies and “charm”, and increase the possibility of their own harassment by males who “misinterpret” flirtation!!

Even though the paper is academically, methodologically and theoretically sound, its underlying concept and message is simplified directly in the blog post by one of its authors: “Hey women, flirt skillfully to get what you need, flirt like Sue!” The paper is a very diplomatic and academic way to tell women that “We found something magical about you that you can use to get a better salary or selling price!” I wonder what can be the future research suggestions for such a paper or blog post, maybe whether flirtatious women are more successful because of their “skill”, or whether non-flirtatious women are doomed to be bad negotiators because they are not Machiavellian and have a high degree of self-respect, or even whether sex and drugs at work can help close business deals!

My aim out of this blog post is to really think what we seek to get out of research. Is it a mechanistic publication tool to be promoted, express opinions, understand societies, be creative, think out-of-the-box, etc.? Everyone has a goal out of writing or reading research, but what does the world need? My understanding of research is that it should contribute to a better world, where “better” here contains -among other traits- equality, mutual-respect, ethics, and empowerment. In my opinion and with all due respect to the authors, these outcomes cannot be achieved with research on Sue and her flirtation, unfortunately.

In a nutshell, I believe the world needs more ethical research that seeks to achieve a better understanding of the world’s problems, and hence, people and research can work on solving them.