We often hear about how office affairs can poison a workplace — but the romance also harm women even in offices where no hanky-panky is taking place.
In the Harvard Business Review, Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains that women in junior positions can't usually rise the top without the "sponsorship" of a senior executive. But such senior executives are still often married dudes, and they may be unwilling to take on sponsorship duties, with the frequent one-on-one contact they require, if they're going to be suspected of having an affair. Part of the problem here is that office affairs do happen — in one survey, 34% of female execs said they knew a woman who'd had an affair with her boss, and 15% had been that woman. Hewlett recommends restraint for both male supervisors and female employees, and stricter office relationship policies "that punish offenders."
But stopping actual office romances might not fix the problem. Companies also have to figure out what to do about the perception that a senior man who helps a junior woman must want to bone her. Changing this perception will require that all female employees are seen as assets to the company — not asses to be tapped. If yesterday's stories of sexual harassment are any indication, we're a long way from there. And women have to pay twofold — both in actual sexual harassment, and in the loss of status that comes when men are afraid to mentor them. The latter is just one of the less-visible ways the odds at work are still stacked against women, and combating it is going to take more than office romance policies — it'll take an attitude adjustment throughout the American workplace.