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The Five Modalities of Male Desire and How They Limit Women’s Opportunities:

Modality 5


In the previous essays of this series, we argued that women’s economic opportunities are shaped by male employers’ decisions about which occupations and jobs should go to women. These decisions in turn are shaped by five different modalities of male desire about what men want from women at work. In that previous essays, we discussed

Modality I: Men Excluding Women from the Workplace to Reinforce Their Own Status as Men

Modality II: Men Seeking Approval from High Status Feminist Gatekeepers and

Modality III: Men Seeking Approval from High Status Patriarchal Gatekeepers

Modality IV: Opportunistic Wolfism – Uncontrolled Men Seeking Sexualized or Super-domesticated Women

In this essay we discuss:



The arguments here come from the brilliant work of Lauren Rivera.

Geishaism is the hiring of intelligent attractive workers with high social skills for their entertainment value for management. Employers are not hiring workers; they are hiring playmates. This process can operate for workers of both genders. An athletic male may be hired because he would be a good racquetball partner. An attractive witty woman might be hired for her value at coffee breaks or business dinners. Geishaism of course refers to Japanese courtesans who were recruited primarily for their conversational, artistic and entertainment skills.

Geishaism is most likely to occur in the most elite and prestigious of firms, such as Wall Street banks or top corporate consultancies. There are several features of such elite settings that promote geishaism as a hiring principle.

A. Hiring can be random because all of the candidates are exceptionally qualified. The recruitment pool consists exclusively of students from the most prestigious and highly regarded schools, such as Wharton or Harvard. All of them have top GPA’s, dazzling records of extracurricular activities, and sterling letters. The extraordinary quality of the candidate pool means that the firm can make its hires virtually randomly and be assured of obtaining outstanding candidates.

B. Hiring can be random because it is impossible to predict performance in the firm from any indicator of past behavior. The jobs that will be given to new recruits to the firm are substantively completely different from what they were doing as an undergraduate or in professional school. Doing well in law school classes or working on a law review is not the same as generating new business for the firm, filing motions or dealing with the actual legal questions facing the firm’s clients. Doing mergers and acquisitions is completely different from taking finance courses.

The distinctiveness of the actual work of elite firms means that interviewers have very little guidance from the files on their candidates that would allow them to tell who will be good or who will be bad. The problems that corporate recruiters face are analogous to those professional sports teams trying to draft rookies from the college pool. They may have access to the full statistical record of a student athlete’s college performance on the field, along with game tapes and medical records. However, the rules of the college game are different from those of the pro game, and the opponents are of far greater physical skill. Past statistics and documents are of little avail in predicting how college players will perform in the more demanding professional setting.

C. Hiring can emphasize social attractiveness and entertainment potential because work processes are social and collaborative. Work in investment banks, elite law firms and management consultancies is highly social. All projects are team projects. Workers are in constant contact with each other via live meetings, emails, texts or phone calls. Furthermore, there is extensive contact with clients. Social attractiveness and entertainment potential both increase the pleasure of joint interaction and facilitate building goodwill with clients.

D. Long Hours and Ambiguous Criteria for the Evaluation of Personal Performance Increase the Need for Managers to Fulfill Their Emotional Needs During the Workday. A professional split between job-related duties and personal life is easier to maintain when the work-day is sufficiently short to give people time to fulfill their individual needs outside of working hours. This becomes less practical when managers and employees are working seventy-hour weeks.

This puts a premium on managers surrounding themselves with fun, entertaining colleagues with whom they can relax and speak casually. Managers will hire people with high social skills regardless of similarity simply to find someone with whom they can talk and unburden. Furthermore, under conditions of ambiguity in the quality of performance, managers will surround themselves with people they consider to be vital and interesting – simply to obtain the reflected glory of being on a team that is vital and interesting.

Studies of elite corporate interviews show that they consist of almost no substantive questions concerning professional capacities, qualifications or performance records. Interviews overwhelmingly consist of social questions. The likelihood of being hired was based on the interviewer’s emotional response to the candidates answer to social questions – and whether the interviewer was “excited” about working with the candidate in the future. The key to getting hired was being “interesting” and getting the interviewer to anticipate fun social interaction with that candidate if that person were to get the job. Candidates were expected to entertain the interviewer with sparkling conversation and interesting anecdotes; if they succeeded, they received some of the highest paying jobs in the country. In many ways, they were “chatting for profit” leading to the present characterization of this hiring dynamic as geishaism.

Rivera’s professional findings can be validated from the life of one of my colleagues, Rae Lesser Blumberg of the University of Virginia. Before she was a famous sociologist, she was a struggling young college student seeking summer jobs in the Chicago labor market. She got a job as a secretary at a food company in Chicago. She was hired by a senior male executive.  Her getting the job was based on her looks as well as her brains.  She was not given a serious evaluation of her skills for the job at hand – which in this case meant shorthand and typing. Once she was on the job, she found her social responsibilities to be at least as important as her professional ones. She was expected to join the male managers at lunch for group eating and drinking. She was expected to make entertaining conversation at the table. She also had meaningful responsibilities at the office; objectively she was a productive worker. Geisha-ism involves hiring workers for both professional and social capacities. Blumberg had to fill this double role.

What are the gender implications of geisha-ism? Job candidates of both sexes are expected to be entertaining. However, female job candidates are also expected to be beautiful. In Rivera’s study, female physical beauty was not correlated with being hired when a female candidate was interviewed by a woman. However, being hired was strongly correlated with beauty when the candidate was interviewed by a male. Future hires, like geishas, were expected to be good looking – even if no physical intimacy was anticipated by the hirer/consumer.

What are the implications for women’s access to power? The good news is that geisha-ism provides a limited route for women to obtain positions in some of the most lucrative and powerful organizations in the country. The social networking that creates access to these positions is not that different from the operation of the “old boys’ network” which put elite WASPs into these positions in an earlier era.

The bad news is that it is not known whether geisha-ism leads to enduring careers, promotions and access to top management positions. Are the women treated as decorative second-class citizens in elite settings or do they have the probability of promotion as comparably qualified males?  Note also that the mere existence of highly prestigious firms with equal prestigious candidate pools has not historically guaranteed female hiring. The geisha-ism of the 2000’s occurs in the same settings as the closed all-male elite networks of the 1940’s and 50’s.

For More Information

The arguments in this essay were heavily inspired by a series of articles by Lauren Rivera on the hiring practices of elite New York law firms and management consultancies. See her articles in the 2012 American Sociological Review and the 2015 American Journal of Sociology.

For a different but equally devastating view of the social use of women on the corporate ladder, see Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation

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