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Economists Behaving Badly: How the IMF Became a Bad Sex Farce

Office romance! Leering bosses hounding pretty young things! Love in the afternoon! Another episode of Mad Men? Try the IMF. That's the image the NYT conjures up in linking what it describes as a culture of sexual permissiveness at the organization with the attempted rape charges facing former fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn:

Some women avoid wearing skirts for fear of attracting unwanted attention. Others trade whispered tips about overly forward bosses. A 2008 internal review found few restraints on the conduct of senior managers, concluding that "the absence of public ethics scandals seems to be more a consequence of luck than good planning and action...."
Interviews and documents paint a picture of the fund as an institution whose sexual norms and customs are markedly different from those of Washington, leaving its female employees vulnerable to harassment.
IMF officials also ignored women employees' complaints about sexual harassment and only recently took steps to limit intimate relationships between managers and subordinates, the Times reports.

Washington between the sheets
There's just one problem with this analysis, and that's the notion that the IMF is wilder than the rest of Washington. (State, maybe.) After Silvio Berlusconi's villa, the U.S. capital is the sex scandal capital of the free world. Powerful men in Washington have been shooting themselves in the crotch for centuries, from Thomas Jefferson's long extramarital affair with Sally Hemings, to JFK's flings with starlets, models and just about anything else in a skirt, to Bill Clinton's sharing a cigar with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office.

You don't even have to be a big-shot in DC to get in on the fun, thank goodness. Remember "Lubrigate" after the BP oil spill disaster? That was when staffers of the U.S. Minerals Management Service literally climbed into bed with the energy industry officials they were supposed to regulate.

In short, there's a reason the Washington monument is shaped like that.

And if Don Draper would feel at home stalking the IMF's marbled halls, he'd be even more in his element joining in the frat-house antics on Wall Street. Women bankers have been fighting sexual harassment for years, including the three Goldman Sachs (GS) employees who allege they were discriminated against -- and some groped -- in suing the financial firm last fall.

Was the IMF lax in combating similar behavior? Sounds like it. And certainly the fund doesn't appear exactly gender-blind -- only six of its 30 senior executives are women (cue the discrimination skeptics claiming that a good female economist is hard to find and would probably rather be having babies, anyway). But it seems like a stretch to suggest that the organization's culture had anything to do with Strauss-Kahn's alleged crime. He'd been accused of sexual assault before his stint at the IMF, after all.

Is sex among colleagues ever OK?
By contrast, it's fair to ask whether his history of amorous adventures, including in the workplace, may have made the IMF less willing to take harassment complaints seriously. I'm also curious about whether that culture would change under someone like French finance minister Christine Lagarde, who is favored to become the new -- and first female -- head of the IMF.

In the corporate world, the spotlight on the IMF may spur companies to revisit their own codes of conduct. The broad emphasis in the U.S. has been to desexualize the workplace, largely to protect enterprises from liability.

Yet striking the right balance between encouraging collegial bonding and halting inappropriate intimacy isn't easy. Sexual harassment should of course never be tolerated. But what about arguably healthier kinds of personal interaction, even ones that toe the line between friendship and romance?

More broadly, just how much emotion is it appropriate for employees to show on the job? These are tougher calls, and issues that Strauss-Kahn's successor would do well to consider in her spare moments away from saving the European economy. Just take it easy on the martinis.

Images from Wikimedia Commons

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