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Opinion: Why it's ok to flirt your way to the top

From Victoria Pynchon, Special to CNN
November 14, 2012 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
A woman sits on a desk at work. Women in business should not hesitate to use their
A woman sits on a desk at work. Women in business should not hesitate to use their "feminine charms" to get ahead, says Victoria Pynchon.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pynchon: Women are in lose-lose situation whether or not they conform to female stereotypes
  • She says we should encourage both men and women to use their authentic personality traits
  • Pynchon: It's wrong to think that using "feminine charms" sets back the women's movement

Editor's note: Victoria Pynchon is the co-founder of She Negotiates Consulting and Training, a firm which aims to close the wage and leadership gap in business. After a 25-year career as a commercial litigator and trial attorney, Pynchon earned a legal masters degree in conflict resolution and has since published two books, "The Grownups' ABCs of Conflict Resolution" and "Success as a Mediator for Dummies."

(CNN) -- When coupled with the word "business," flirtation brings to mind mythical Hollywood "casting couches" and Film Noir femme fatales whose brazen sexuality served as camouflage for evil hearts and small-caliber pistols.

Victoria Pynchon, attorney and co-founder of She Negotiates
Victoria Pynchon, attorney and co-founder of She Negotiates

Our near universal distaste for women who use their feminine "wiles" to reach the corner office rather than the marriage bower is more a testament to the power of movies and cheap fiction than to lessons learned through our lived experience.

Because business remains stubbornly male, nearly every quality associated with femininity puts women at a disadvantage in the workplace. If we do not conform to the positive stereotypes of selflessness, tolerance, accommodation and, yes, purity, we are scorned -- and sidelined -- for being "mannish," severe, or shrill. If we conform to these stereotypes, we are deemed too weak, passive, sensitive and emotional to engage in commerce as the competitive sport to which it is so often compared.

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Having entered the world of commerce as a litigator and trial attorney more than three decades ago, the futility of attempting to beat men at their own game became quickly apparent. They were combative, physically imposing, eager to intimidate and quick to anger. As long as they could save face, they backed down easily enough, returning to jocular, towel-snapping, frat house bonhomie. No one criticized them for deploying these masculine characteristics to achieve. You'd be labeled a spoilsport, unworthy of their company and barred from playing their games.

Because business remains stubbornly male, nearly every quality associated with femininity puts women at a disadvantage
Victoria Pynchon

I was a slip of a girl when I first went mano-a-mano with roomfuls of crusty old defense attorneys. One of my primary tasks in those early years was to gather information from my opponents by eliciting pre-trial testimony in a process we call taking depositions.

Obstructing my attempts to unearth facts from reluctant adversaries was, of course, their job. But they took special pleasure in batting me about conference and court rooms like a cat toy -- an inexperienced, foolish girl who thought she might one day be an actual trial attorney.

My job was to win every skirmish in the long war of attrition that is litigation. There was no reward for looking good, only for being good. And it didn't take me long to realize that I could be good using their low opinion of my abilities as my own secret weapon of attack. When I needed their favor, I did not hesitate to use "feminine charms" to gain it. Those "charms" included warmth, flattery, playfulness, and sexiness. Bringing them onto the field of play in no way diminished my intelligence, growing savvy, meticulous preparation and growing reputation as a worthy adversary.

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I possessed, as so many women do, a lively curiosity about other people's motivations, the ability to locate and praise that which is praiseworthy in even the worst of people, and a strong sense of who I was and who I could never be.

When I teach young lawyers deposition and beginning trial practice skills for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, I encourage all of them, male and female, to use every one of their authentic personality traits to get as many people as possible up in their tree house, playing their games.

Tom Sawyer famously hornswoggled a neighborhood of kids to whitewash his aunt's fence by noisily enjoying the task before ever so reluctantly passing them a brush. Daniel Craig woos women and undoes men with a hint of subterranean menace spring loaded to please or harm once he decides which shot to call. With Sawyer the charm is playful. With Craig it is danger. For each, it is who he most deeply is, including his inescapable sexuality.

The stage on which we women are instructed to play, fingers waggling in our faces, is often so constricting it's a wonder we can move at all. To deny ourselves access to any of our powers too often leaves us without any power at all.

When I mentor women, I urge them to use whatever they've got. If warmth, playfulness, and flattery get the job done and they are comfortable expressing themselves in these dimensions, by all means, I counsel, go ahead and use them. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in Half the Sky, more girls have been killed in the last fifty years because they are female, than men were killed in all the wars of the 20th century. We have important work to do and we do not have time to waste our energy on appearances.

To deny ourselves access to any of our powers too often leaves us without any power at all
Victoria Pynchon

When I boldly say these things, I'm challenged for "setting the women's movement back forty years." I strongly disagree.

What sets us back, or simply keeps us mired in place, is the persistence of a commercial culture primarily powered by intimidation, sharp practices, greed and obstruction. Think the economic meltdown of 2008. These practices pose real danger and leave little room for the collaboration, inclusion, and creative play required to innovate our way toward a better world.

When men or women paper over that which makes us most human, dimensional and flexible, we deprive ourselves and one another of what is truly generative within and among us.

If we instead attune ourselves to those whom we would influence, a well-placed bit of flattery can take us places no amount of earnest argument ever will. If we are true to ourselves and trustworthy players in the business of commence, our success will be fairly earned and our behavior above reproach.

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