Sex Is Not the Problem: What David Letterman and Steve Phillips Demonstrate About Women in the Workplace

The recent revelation of a summertime affair gone wrong between ESPN's Baseball Tonight analyst Steve Phillips and a 22-year-old production assistant seemed like just another postscript of a year plagued by sex scandals. Now it's been reported that Phillips has been fired for his office affair. "His ability to be an effective representative for ESPN has been significantly and irreparably damaged," said a spokesman for the network. Phillips is apparently set to enter a "treatment facility" to address his sex-addiction issues. His romantic partner is also out of a job and will be forever (or at least as long as Google exists) remembered as a "tubby temptress" and "bunny boiler." Meanwhile, the sports blog Deadpsin has gone on an unsubstantiated gossip dump, bringing up several more rumors about the sexual shenanigans of ESPN talent and executives (most of which involved younger women). ESPN is not the only place with a problem. On Tuesday, Nell Scovell, a former Letterman employee—one of only seven women writers in the show's 27-year tenure—wrote for Vanity Fair about the hostile work environment caused by the senior staff's roving eyes.

Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely.

Though one affair ended in a ruined career and the other in lots of "aw, shucks" apologia, both bring up larger issues about the role of men, women, and power in the workplace. Office affairs are as old as offices, and people often date, fall in love with, and marry their co-workers. But the picture becomes much muddier once issues of authority come into play. Power, as Henry Kissinger pointed out, is the greatest aphrodisiac, and the chances of stopping all office affairs between bosses and employees is slim. But the real issue is not that too many bosses are sleeping with their employees. It's that a disproportionate amount of all bosses are men.

The Late Show and ESPN—two workplaces with male-dominated cultures—are extreme examples of what can go wrong when the balance of men and women managers gets out of whack. But such an imbalance is not just limited to male-centric television empires. As Joanna Lipman noted in her excellent column in The New York Times on Monday, 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. (New rankings from the World Economic Forum put America 31st in developed nations when it comes to gender equity.) And when women make up only a small percentage of the corporate hierarchy, the perception that women workers have little power strengthens, as does the chance that those in power will abuse their position to engage in a little extramarital action.

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.

Women, on the other hand, are often believed to possess sexual power—whether they want it, like it, use it, or not. In her Vanity Fair article, Scovell, the Late Show writer, acknowledges that the dearth of other female employees—especially in top spots—created a culture so uncomfortable, so heavy with implications of sex and sexism, she knew she could never thrive. And since the majority of businesses have an unbalanced dynamic of male to female bosses, female workers are often perceived as less than their male counterparts, no matter how hard they work or play.

Even when successful women play the same sexual games men do, they're viewed as playing them from a position of weakness. One of the tips unleashed during the Deadspin dump was that a top female executive at ESPN was having a sexual relationship with another executive. The woman in question later confirmed she was in "an ongoing relationship with a peer"—but even still, this middle-aged, well-established professional was accused of "sleeping her way to the top."

I've had more than one friend tell me that while they're a little annoyed by the flirtatious advances from their male bosses, they appreciate it as a rare chance to get some face time. These women don't play basketball, they don't have stories about their wild nights at the bar with their buddies, and they don't talk about sports the way their male colleagues do. They're not dressing provocatively to catch the boss's eye, but they still get attention in their sweater sets and sensible shoes. They know that other colleagues might make jokes about the boss's motivations, but they're unsure how to ask the attention to stop. And they also recognize such flirtations as a chance to propose ideas and build a place for themselves in the office hierarchy—a place that would otherwise not exist. (Of course, this disparity doesn't break down strictly among gender lines: Maureen Dowd notes that the sportier of Obama's advisers get more access than those men who prefer yoga to hoops.)

An increase in female bosses would help blunt this dynamic, which automatically and unintentionally encourages the perception that female employees are expected to play up their sexuality with male bosses. It would reduce accusations that women are just sleeping with men to get ahead, and cut down on sexually coercive abuses of power by privileged corporate execs.

Scovell reaches the same conclusion: "I don't want a lawsuit. I don't want compensation. I don't want revenge. I don't want Dave to go down (oh, grow up, people). I just want Dave to hire some qualified female writers and then treat them with respect. And that goes for Jay and Conan, too," she writes, noting that there are more female Supreme Court justices than there are female late-night talk-show writers.

When conversations like this arise, there's often a counterargument that hiring with an eye to gender is somehow unfair. There's a notion that there's only one right person for the job, and to suggest factors aside from straight-up performance somehow robs that one hardworking man (as it's always a man) of the position to which he's entitled. Anyone who's ever done hiring knows that's not true. There are often always multiple good candidates, and several subjective factors have to come into play when making hiring decisions. (Notes Scovell: "One frequent excuse you hear from late-night-TV executives is that "women just don't apply for these jobs." And they certainly don't in the same numbers as men. But that's partly because the shows often rely on current [white male] writers to recommend their funny [white male] friends to be future [white male] writers.") Of course, the higher you go up the ladder, the fewer candidates emerge, which is why it's important for companies to promote women, and for women to advocate for their own promotions, at a lower level.

With more women bosses, there will certainly still be office affairs. Bosses will still sleep with employees. But an increase in women executives will make it more likely that those affairs are conducted for the right idiotic reasons—love, lust, and excitement—than ones that make them feel so wrong.

Sex Is Not the Problem: What David Letterman and Steve Phillips Demonstrate About Women in the Workplace | News