Flirting: damned if we do, damned if we don't?

by Holly Combe // 18 December 2012, 23:44

I'm sure we can all think of people who could be described as flirts: those who regularly turn on the charm by flattering egos and engaging in a bit of winsome banter tailored to the preferences of whoever they want to win over. This clearly isn't a quality restricted to one gender. It's a social skill that demands subtlety and awareness to be successful rather than inappropriate or embarrassing. I'm also sure most of us know people whose efforts fall into the latter category (albeit sometimes in different ways, in keeping with learned social roles). Again, cringe-worthy or unwanted flirting is surely not restricted to just one gender.

Yet if you read last week's Daily Mail reporting on a flirting survey commissioned by a comparison website, you could think this was an exclusively female practice that women use to gain advantage. Never mind inequality in the workplace and beyond. Women flirt. So that squares it and makes it fair! Apparently.

Ridiculously, it seems the comparison website in question has actually shared the results of the survey to highlight "positive discrimination towards women" and encourage us to get cheaper car insurance before the ruling prohibiting the use of gender in insurance underwriting comes into play on 21 December:

"As the results of this report show, women are better off in many ways, but one of those benefits will soon disappear, which as an company, we're not particularly happy with."

I appreciate this is just an example of a company finding a way to get business, but using the fact some women flirt to goad us into reacting against a ruling that is actually perfectly fair is not only tenuous but also pretty tedious.

Quite apart from the issue of a comparison website surely not being a particularly reliable source, the whole of the Daily Mail article reads like a blatant twisting of an unexciting revelation to place women's behaviour under scrutiny and excuse sexism. (Okay, I realise this is hardly surprising considering the newspaper the piece appears in.) There are some questions where women and men's results are compared but, interestingly, the statistics on how many men admit to flirting to get what they want are not shared at all by DM or the news distribution source I found (if they were even gathered in the first place). The news distribution source reports that 39% of male managers have said they've employed a candidate based on how attractive they found them, compared to 26% of female managers but, predictably, only the men's result for this particular statistic is shared in the DM piece.

And it isn't just the usual prime suspect putting a somewhat twisted spin on things. The headline at Female First for this story states that "the majority of women will flirt to get their own way and will even use sex as a reward" when, actually, the majority of this flirting must have taken place outside a professional capacity (only just over a fifth of those surveyed say they do it at work) and the percentage of women reporting using sex as a reward stands at just 30%. (Not that this even matters anyway. I'd suggest offering sex as a reward is only a problem if the person doing it would genuinely rather avoid it and, as far as we know, the survey didn't gauge that.)

It also seems even the mere revelation that a number of women admit to flirting to get their own way is something The Daily Mail gleefully imagines feminists "may find hard to stomach". It obviously hasn't occurred to them that feminists might not actually always see flirting as a big deal. The idea that some women may be responding to inequality by pessimistically using "what they've got" according to popular cultural assumptions about gender is not entertained either. It seems that flirting is a area where we women are damned if we do and damned if we don't. Failing to fit in with patriarchal norms may cause us to be viewed unfavourably but utilising any perceived sex appeal we might have means we'd better not dare to complain about sexism. Or, rather, that certainly seems to be the case in The Daily Mail, who manage to make the average UK office sound like something resembling a carry-on film.

I took part in a radio discussion about this story on The Peter Levy Show at BBC Radio Humberside last week, which you can listen to here until around 12pm on Thursday 20 December.

I've been in touch with the PR contact listed at SourceWire and will update this post if I get any information back that gives more details of the survey than the information in the pieces referenced here. Comments pointing to the actual research or more stats (i.e. more than just the PR blurb for the company responsible) would be very welcome!

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Image: Double-headed, double-bodied mannequin with arms up, titled 'Damned if You do, damned if you don't', by madamepsychosis and shared under a creative commons license.

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