BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

What’s Really Behind the Scandals

Posted by egehl on November 10, 2009

Oh those tawdry office affairs.  They certainly have garnered quite a bit of attention lately with comedian David Letterman and ESPN sports fanatic Steve Phillips.  Office romances are as old as the dark ages and they certainly won’t end anytime soon because of sensationalistic media stories.  However they do bring up larger issues about the role of power in the workplace, and who holds it.

Recently one of the few women to write for the Late Show in the 80’s discussed the sexually charged, toxic workplace.  In a Vanity Fair piece, she talked about the rumors she heard regarding Letterman and other high-level male employees having sexual affairs with female staffers.  She felt that the women involved in the affairs had access to information otherwise out of reach, and that they wielded greater power disproportionate to their job title.  As a result, she felt demeaned in a hostile work environment and left the show abruptly. qq1sgOfficeRomance

With people working longer hours and spending more time with their coworkers, office relationships are inevitable.  However it’s when issues of power and authority come into play that women start to be on the losing end.  Power is the greatest aphrodisiac, which is certainly evident in the political world with the fallout of many male politicians over the past few years.  Bosses sleeping with their subordinates won’t change.  However what can change is the disproportionate number of male bosses.  

Like many offices nationwide, late-night writing staffs have long been a boys club.  In 27 years, Late Night and the Late Show have hired only seven female writers.  It supports other statistics about women lagging behind men when it comes to positions of leadership and power.  Women make up about half of all associates at law firms, but only 15 percent of partners.  Moreover, women hold about half the jobs in the U.S., but make up only 15.7 percent of corporate officers and executive managers, 15.2 percent of boards of directors, and 3 percent of CEOs. This imbalance causes women to feel demeaned and leave their job, and makes for a potent mix that can spur incidents of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Regardless of fewer women holding leadership positions, it’s not that the tables should be turned to gain better balance between the sexes.  As written by Kate Daily in Newsweek, “This is not to say that I think female bosses sleeping with their male interns would be a true symbol of gender equity, or that women are so virtuous and men so vile. But much of the imbalance that makes tawdry office affairs more commonplace comes from the reality that the men at a company have more authority than the women: the power to hire and fire, the power to make or break careers, the power to move up the ladder at a faster clip.” 

The sexual scandal between David Letterman and his female staffers, while disappointing and shocking, brings up a larger issue about the lack of women in power in offices nationwide. The unequal dynamic can cause female workers to feel devalued and perceived to work less because of their lower position.  In addition, many women feel that they must flirt and play up their looks to get noticed and have their ideas heard.

More female bosses would help to demystify this perception that women employees have to show off their sexuality to get noticed and move ahead.  It would also address the abuse of power continually shown by men in executive positions spurred by the fact that most women hold positions of lesser privilege.
Workplaces like late night comedy shows with mostly men in positions of power should reevaluate their hiring practices and make a concerted effort to build genuine diversity.  I have no doubt there are many qualified, talented female writers out there. 

As the former writer from the Late Show says, her impetus for speaking up was not to bring shame onto David Letterman but instead to encourage him “to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect”.  If something positive could come out of this scandal, I believe that would be it.


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