Sexist thug - or victim of corporate culture? Frances Williams and Stephen Armstrong ask if men at work are as brutal as a new film suggests
"ANYONE who says it's hyper-real or an exaggeration is crazy," says Aaron Ekhart, lead actor in the controversial film The Company of Men. "I went to bars on Wall Street and watched guys smoke cigars and drink Martinis. They earn lots of money and really thrive on it. It's totally Darwinian. It's a football club with suits on. It's all about power, money, control and status. And that is what Chad is about."

The Company of Men (in which Ekhart plays Chad) has already been described in the States as "a psychological snuff movie". It's shocked American audiences with its unflinching portrayal of misogyny in the workplace. In it, Chad enters a secret pact with a colleague to see which of them can seduce Christine, a secretary. Feeling wronged by women in general, they plan to dump her as soon as she succumbs to either of their advances. Romantic comedy it ain't. And "new blokes" and "soft lads" are nowhere to be seen. The movie, an American independent, was intended as an ironic critique of modern masculinity. So its makers were astonished to witness men in cinema audiences whooping with delight, urging Chad on as if he were an unsung hero. "I though I was making a moral tale," says writer Neil LaBute. "Men are trying to believe it's science fiction, whereas women are relatively sure it's documentary."

The film appears as a new survey has revealed that most women believe that men still find ways to undermine them at work. The MORI poll, carried out for The Mail on Sunday, reports that almost half of women think their male bosses are sexist. And this as the Office for National Statistics reports women now outnumber men in the workplace for the first time.

The Nineties workplace, so popular mythology has it, is a caring, sharing place, awash with family-friendly management policies and cuddly New Labour values. The workplace that Nineties man actually finds himself in, however, can be rather uglier. All the pressures associated with the cut-and-thrust Eighties are still there, but now in glorious technicolour, as economic pressures lead to "downsizing": shrinking staff levels, spiralling workloads, and perpetual job insecurity. It's a jungle out there, and Office Man is feeling hunted.

Simon, 34, works for a rapidly-expanding firm of chartered surveyors. "It's definitely become a lot harder since the recession," he says. "In the early Nineties there was a wave of redundancies, mostly in middle management, and they haven't been replaced since the upturn. Now there's lots of money about, so we're working twice as hard as before, but we're still really vulnerable. There's still loads of graduates coming in, but there aren't enough jobs for them. That means you have to stay on your toes. You get written warnings these days for things that would have been passed off with a chuckle a few years ago. The clients want you to drink with them, but if you go in with a hangover or a bit drunk, your boss is really down on you. You can't wimp out, so you have to drink, but disguise it at work. It's hard line to walk down. You have to make sure you leave the office after your juniors, but they all play the macho working game and stay till all hours. I have a wife now, so I'd like to go home and see her, but you can't be the first one to leave."

It's tough, yes, but at least these tensions are a known quantity, a recognisable part of traditional corporate culture. But Office Man now has a new pressure to contend with. Over the last ten years a growing number of women have been introduced into the corporate mix, with their "feminised" management methods, their whiff of sex and their mysterious bonding rituals. Many men, it seems, feel all at sea.

"There are quite a lot of women in my office at all levels," says Nigel, 29, a fund manager for a merchant bank, "and it's a bit of a pain, to be honest with you. I'd gladly trash one of them, because they do it to me all the time. They just take advantage of you. They expect you to be all chivalrous, but they're playing with your mind because in the boardroom they're the first to stab you in the back. Then there's these monthly arguments. All the women in my office have gone into menstrual sync, and you get a week when no-one gets any work done. With a bloke, all you get is the odd hangover. Bring back the glass ceiling, I say."

Still lingering in the corporate culture, apparently, is the idea that women don't belong in the workplace at all. As one 44-year-old male financial advisor in the MORI survey put it: "Once you put a woman in a male domain you are asking for trouble. If an attractive girl came into my domain, she would appear to be eligible for seduction. If sexual tension isn't released, then men turn nasty. Traditionally, pretty women were for after work. If they're at work, men get confused. Then the women are in danger of being harassed for a whole nest of psychological reasons."

"There is more of a threat to men in the workplace today," says Sandi Mann, an organisational psychologist at Salford University, "because there has been a feminisation of the culture. Having emotions is seen more positively. The idea that a white middle-aged male will make an ideal manager is no longer held to be self-evident. Women have proved that they are better at management skills - they are more intuitive, they interact well with people and so on. And so men do feel threatened."

Chris is 47 and works as an architect. He admits that, "It's been quite hard for men of my age to accept the influx of women into the industry. There's certainly been a change in the last 20 years or so. I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing. Women can do very well by flirting with clients, whereas men can't, so you sometimes feel at a disadvantage. You also find that a lot of the younger people are women, so you can feel a double threat - they're younger than me so they're after my job and they're women so they have a lot to prove. I don't know if people deliberately set out to crush a woman rival. I think you'd be silly to try: there's loads of 'thought police' organisations that they could go to and get you pilloried, aren't there?"

Victoria, a lawyer is her early thirties, has been on the receiving end of all this fear and loathing. Though the corporate world may appear to be a more harmonious place, the scary part, she believes, goes on largely behind the scenes. "My old boss was very calculating. When I was his junior, he would secretly tell me his trade secrets, like advising me on how long to leave clients waiting in reception. When I was promoted to equal standing with him, he turned his methods on me. He spread false rumours about my sex life to colleagues, froze me out of meetings, and criticised my professionalism to clients. He was very careful to stay within the rules so that I could never officially complain about him to senior management. He turned our relationship into psychological warfare. It grew so tiresome I eventually left the company, despite many years of hard work there."

It is perhaps in this "game" of visible and invisible behaviour that a battle of wits is taking place. Both men and women harbour a desire to "get even". While men might feel that women use their sexuality to gain unfair advantage, it's also been shown that women in positions of authority take out old grievances on men as a way of settling old scores. According to the National Workplace Advice Line, reports of women bullies are on the increase. Significantly, women bullies are far more evident in organisations where women haven't achieved power before. "They are getting their own back," says Sue Langmead, spokeswoman for Women in Management. "It's deeply depressing that women are resorting to these tactics. It would be a great pity if business encouraged a thoroughly ruthless culture where the office is a place of continuous battle." A pity, indeed.

'The Company of Men' opens on January 30