If you could harness the energy devoted to office gossip in any work place, you could probably solve the oil crisis. The Bendix Corporation is no exception.

But the story of Mary Cunningham and William Agee has made the ordinary office viciousness look positively benign. In a matter of days in corporate headquarters, 29-year-old Mary Cunningham was promoted up to vice president and then humiliated out of the business. All because of rumors that she and Agee were having an affair.

Needless to say, this story would have bubbled around any water cooler for quite a while. But it also landed on page one of almost every newspaper in America, and for the past week it has been a catalyst for debates between men and women, bosses and employees.

The Cunningham-Agee story is an updated version of the favorite male fantasy about women who sleep their way to the top. It is absolutely ripe with hostility toward uppity women, especially pretty young uppity women.

On the surface, the argument is whether Mary Cunningham won her promotion because of "favoritism," But once you get two sentences into the debate you can hear the old subconscious fear and anger rumbling around: the feeling that women really have an "unfair advantage" over men in the business world. The belief that they take that unfair advantage.

I would like to dismiss this notion as the bitter raving of a rejected male executive overdosing on martinis and testosterone. But it's too widespread and too destructive to simply write off.

Just think about all the "unfair advantages." As far as I can see, every promotion to the executive suite is based in part on a personal relationship. Bosses promote the people they like and know.

It's no news bulletin that the ambitious will jockey for casual friendship in the steam room, on the golf course, in the private club. These are precisely the places often closed to women. Men don't consider that an "unfair advantage."

The other informal path to success is to stop for an after-work drink or sign on the out-of-town trip. This is the way a man convinces his leader that he is charming, intelligent and a good business hustler. This is also the easiest way for a woman to convince her boss that she is another sort of hustler.

The after-work drink and the road trip work for men, but not for women. Men do not consider this an "unfair advantage."

When you come down to it, a woman who wants to diffuse the sex issues had better be plain, happily married and talk about her busband incessantly. At that point, of course, she will probably be passed over for promotion because she doesn't need the pay raise.

Women do not have a set of separate-but-equal unfair advantages. It is plain old hostility that assumes that a woman can only get to the top on her back instead of her merit. It is plain old fantasy to envision nubile young business-school graduates cutting through the competition with a little pillow talk.

If women can sleep their way to the top, how come they aren't there? Only six percent of all the working women in the country have squeaked into management. Only 600 of the 15,000 people on boards of directors are female. There must be an epidemic of insomnia out there.

I'm not naive. The work place is not a convent; people meet and fall in love over stranger things than blueprints. But nobody calls the reporters in when yet another boss sleeps with his secretary. If you look at the sexual harassment statistics, it's women at the bottom who are considered fair game.

The sex issue in work is loaded -- against women -- precisely because there are so few in any kind of power. Each one is the exception, scrutinized, assumed to have some mysterious power to cloud men's minds. Did they or did't they? Are they or aren't they? Does it matter? All I know is that Mary Cunningham is out and William Agee is still president.

There's an old proverb: whether the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock, it's going to be bad for the pitcher.

Well, no matter what happens, or why, in this sort of collision it's the less powerful person who gets shattered. In corporate America, Mary Cunningham was just another pitcher.