THERE IS A MYTH abroad in the land that all you have to do to figure out if a situation is sexist is substitute the word "man" for the word "woman." Some of the time it works and some of the time it doesn't. One place it's not working is at Bendix.

There we have the by-now celebrated case of William Agee and Mary Cunningham. He is the 42-year-old vice president for strategic planning, and together they have managed to make a bit of news. The publicity, though, has nothing to do with washing machines or air brakes. It is their relationship that people find interesting.

That Agee and Cunningham are friends is no secret. But just what else they might be -- if anything -- is a secret. All we know is that Agee hired her, that she has been at the firm only about a year and that her career has taken off like the proverbial rocket. Lest you imagine, though, that she is some squeaky-voiced blonde out of the chorus line of "Guys and Dolls," there is one other fact you should know: Cunningham has a master's degree in business adminstration -- from Harvard, yet.

Using the standard formula, some people would say that what we have here is the classic mentor-protege relationship -- nothing more, nothing less. Men have these relationships with one another all the time and nothing is said of them. Al Haig, the man who virtually ran the Nixon White House during the waning days of Watergate, went from colonel to four-star general partly because he was a protege of Henery Kissinger. Similarly, Walter Lippmann, the columnist, virtually made a career out of attaching himself to older and more influential men, often by writing them sycophantish letters in which he pledged undying fealty or the moral equivalent thereof.

If we apply the same formula to the Bendix case, it would mean that if both Agee and Cunningham were men, there would be no talk of an affair, no suspicion that Cunningham's success had more to do with her relationship with Agee than with her business ability. To think otherwise, some would say, is sexist -- the application of a standard that would not be applied if two men, or, for that matter, two women, were involved. There might be some talk of favoritism and friendship, but not the sort of rumor-mongering that prompted Agee to go public and deny that his friendship with Cunningham had anything to do with her rapid rise up the corporate ladder.

But gender really has nothing to do with it. It does not matter if we are talking about two men or two women or any combination thereof, what really matters is the nature of the relationship. If it is romantic, passionate, sexual, then it is different from a friendship -- different even from the mentor-protege relationship.

There we have the by-now celebrated case of William Agee and Mary Cunningham. He is the 42 [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]

It is only because these sexual relationships usually occur between men and women that we get them all confused with the issue of sexism. It is not sexism to take into account the difference between romantic love and friendship and to appreciate that while one might not have any affect on a business relationship, the other almost certainly would.

Could a superviosr fire the person he or she loves? Could he or she demote a lover or penalize a lover or criticize a lover? Could he or she do any of those things knowing it could jeapordize the relationship -- knowing it would spoil dinner and kill sex and, maybe, ruin what might be the most important thing in the world for both of them: the relationship?

There are no answers to those questions except the old standby of "it depends." But whatever the answer and whatever the case, it makes no sense to ignore the face that one relationship has an impact on the other -- that a love affair is bound to affect a business relationship.

To deny that is to deny reality, to set aside all we know about men, women, passion, jealousy, love, lust and everything else our grandmothers knew about life but we, for really good reasons having to do with the equality of women, would prefer to ignore. Romeo and Juliet, after all, did not kill themselves because they had, in the current idiom, a close, personal relationship.

To argue that it is sexist to question a relationship just because a woman is involved, or to insist that romance has no effect on a business relationship, is worse than simply overlooking all we know about love and lust -- the stuff of poetry. It also excuses those who would use their position to get sex or their sex to get a position. That is no myth. That is sexism.