When women speak, they shouldn’t be shrill. Clothing must flatter, but short skirts are a no-no. After all, “sexuality scrambles the mind.” Women should look healthy and fit, with a “good haircut” and “manicured nails.”
These were just a few pieces of advice that around 30 female executives at Ernst & Young received at a training held in the accounting giant’s gleaming new office in Hoboken, New Jersey, in June 2018.
The 55-page presentation, used during the day-and-a-half seminar on leadership and empowerment, was given to HuffPost by an attendee who was appalled by its contents. Full of out-of-touch advice, the presentation focused on how women need to fix themselves to fit into a male-dominated workplace.
The training, called Power-Presence-Purpose or PPP, took place during the height of the Me Too movement when sexual misconduct accusations dominated the news. In response, large businesses, including EY, shored up their sexual harassment policies and training. A few companies banned forced arbitration over allegations of sex discrimination and assault. Some men were fired.
“Women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it’s hard for them to focus, the attendees were told. Men’s brains are more like waffles. They’re better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square.”
EY, one of the largest accounting firms in the world with $36.4 billion in global revenue and 270,000 employees, was still recovering from a public Me Too accusation. A few months before the seminar, the company was in the news for settling a discrimination complaint filed by Jessica Casucci, a partner at the firm who said she was sexually assaulted by a male partner. The incident happened years before and Casucci complained internally. EY fired the man only after she went public.
The June 2018 event did not touch on any of these topics, however. The focus was on self-improvement. For women.
After HuffPost inquired about the training in early October of this year, EY said that the course had been under review for months, that the June 2018 event was the last time that version of the training was held at the company and that the course “is no longer offered in its current form.” The company did not provide any more detail on the changes.
The training was just one of many that the firm offered to men and women, EY told HuffPost. PPP was created by someone outside the company, “an external vendor,” EY said, and offered because some women requested it.
The company said it disagrees with the way the content of the seminar is characterized in this story. “Any isolated aspects are taken wholly out of context,” EY said in a statement. The company said it reviewed the evaluations of women who participated in the program, and found they rated it highly. EY’s communications team also shared quotes from two current employees, who praised the training.
“Professionally, PPP was the most impactful leadership program that I have had the opportunity to participate in and I have always been incredibly proud and humbled to have been a part of it,” EY senior executive Stacey Moore, who participated in the training four years ago, said in a statement provided by company. “I am forever grateful to the firm for the opportunity and the investment in our women.”
Indeed, some EY partners include references to the PPP program on their LinkedIn pages. In May, female EY employees gathered for a PPP reunion and “graduation.” A LinkedIn post from one EY employee about that gathering says that more than 150 women have taken the course.
“We are proud of our long-standing commitment to women and deeply committed to creating and fostering an environment of inclusivity and belonging at EY, anything that suggests the contrary is 100% false,” the firm said in its statement to HuffPost.
Don’t Show Your Distracting Skin
The training was billed to participants as advice on how to be successful at EY, according to Jane, a training attendee and former executive director at the firm who’s in her early 40s. Though she’s since left the firm, Jane asked to use a pseudonym, fearing career reprisals.
After she attended the event, Jane said a male EY partner told her, derisively, that it was a “male-bashing” program. With hindsight, Jane realized he had it wrong. “It was more of a woman-bashing event, ironically enough,” she said.
Ernst & Young hired an outside consultant, Marsha Clark (not that one), to teach promising women at EY how to grow their networks, negotiate and “build stronger, high-performing teams,” according to the written presentation.
It should be noted that presentation doesn’t even consider the existence of people who identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming. And it doesn’t delve into how women may be treated differently based on race or sexual orientation.
One section of the document is devoted to women’s appearance: Be “polished,” have a “good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type,” it states on Page 36. But then, a warning: “Don’t flaunt your body ― sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).”
The most important thing women can do is “signal fitness and wellness,” the presentation continues.
Jane recalls being told that if you want men to focus on the substance of what you’re talking about, “don’t show skin.” If you do, men are less likely to focus “because of sex,” Jane recalls being told. The advice made her “feel like a piece of meat,” she said.
A long list of “Invisible Rules” for men and women on Page 13 paints a bleak portrait of contrasting communication styles. It says that women often “speak briefly” and “often ramble and miss the point” in meetings. By comparison, a man will “speak at length ― because he really believes in his idea.” Women don’t interrupt effectively like men. Women “wait their turn (that never comes) and raise their hands.”
It’s not clear from the presentation if these “rules” are offered as legitimate expectations or false stereotypes. Jane said it was the former when she took the course. The presentation has a few “discussion questions” that ask women how these rules manifest in their organization and “how can you ‘manage’ yourself now that you’re aware of the ‘rules.’” But there’s little that suggests the “rules” can be broken ― only that women need to navigate through a world structured by these rules.
Don’t Be Aggressive Like Men
Before the workshop, women were also given a “Masculine/Feminine Score Sheet,” which had them rate their adherence to stereotypical masculine and feminine characteristics both on the job and outside the office.
The so-called masculine traits included “Acts as a Leader,” “Aggressive,” “Ambitious,” “Analytical,” “Has Leadership Abilities,” “Strong Personality” and “Willing to Take a Stand.”
The so-called feminine traits included “Affectionate,” “Cheerful,” “Childlike,” “Compassionate,” “Gullible,” “Loves Children” and “Yielding.” None of the feminine traits involved leadership ― ostensibly a focus of the training.
Jane said the message was that women will be penalized, by both men and women, if they don’t adhere to feminine characteristics or if they display more masculine traits. And that if you want to be successful, you have to keep this in mind.
Clark declined to talk with HuffPost about the presentation, but it appears to be in line with other workshops she’s given, based on an examination of some of the materials posted online by her consulting firm, Marsha Clark & Associates.
Clark touts her own business experience as critical to her consulting expertise. According to her website bio, she served as an executive at Electronic Data Systems, the Texas technology company founded by Ross Perot, for 21 years before striking out on her own as a consultant in 2000.
Working as one of the few women in the C-suites of the Texas tech industry in the 1980s and 1990s would have been a sexist minefield. That experience may be why Clark’s advice still follows an older approach of telling women how to navigate within stereotypes rather than confronting them more directly.
“Marsha’s background as an executive in both line and staff roles, as well as her academic training, provides a unique combination of skills and experience to offer her clients,” her bio says.
Among the other credentials listed on Clark’s site are a master’s of science in organizational development from American University and various corporate and professional certifications, including for the Myers-Briggs test, one of the most popular and most debunked personality tests used in the business world. Clark’s website also lists a host of blue-chip clients including JPMorganChase, Microsoft and Pepsico.
While EY said this week that the company no longer offers Clark’s PPP training in its current form, it’s not clear whether this means EY has stopped working with Clark. The company did not answer that question. As recently as Oct. 2, she appears to have attended another workshop with EY that touched on “invisible differences,” according to her LinkedIn page.
Don’t Talk To Men Face-To-Face
Jane said that at the PPP training she attended last year, Clark coached the group in how to interact with men in the workplace ― advice that Jane wrote down in her notes and shared with HuffPost:
Don’t directly confront men in meetings, because men perceive this as threatening. (Women do not.) Meet before (or after) the meeting instead.
If you’re having a conversation with a man, cross your legs and sit at an angle to him. Don’t talk to a man face-to-face. Men see that as threatening.
Don’t be too aggressive or outspoken.
“You have to offer your thoughts in a benign way,” Jane said, recalling the seminar. “You have to be the perfect Stepford wife.” It felt like they were being turned into someone who is “super-smiley, who never confronts anyone,” she said.
“You have to be the stereotype of what a woman is,” Jane said. Like the worksheet described it, she added.
Attendees were even told that women’s brains are 6% to 11% smaller than men’s, Jane said. She wasn’t sure why they were told this, nor is it clear from the presentation. Women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it’s hard for them to focus, the attendees were told. Men’s brains are more like waffles. They’re better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square.
The only reason to talk to women about their size of their brains is to make them feel inferior to men, said Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University. “It’s implying their brains don’t work as well,” he said, but in fact there is no link between size and function. “Brain size is irrelevant.”
HuffPost reached out to several other women who attended the PPP training. None responded.
Let’s Debunk Ideas About Women At Work
Stereotypes about how women behave at work ― they don’t ask for what they want, they don’t negotiate, they’re more caring ― are popular. They’re also largely false and misunderstood, said Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School who researches the role of gender in organizations and has taught leadership training for women.
Ely reviewed the EY presentation at HuffPost’s request.
“There’s not a lot of empirical support that there are trait differences between men and women,” she said. “This curriculum is shot through with that assumption.”
Ely recently published a paper debunking other beliefs about women in the workplace, such as the claims that they’re bad negotiators or lack confidence – both ideas in the EY presentation. Often, it’s company culture, not inherent gender differences, the professor said, that create situations in which women appear to lack confidence or ambition.
“You look at what happens in meetings in such cultures. It’s not lack of confidence. It’s when women say something, it’s more harshly criticized,” Ely said. “If a guy says anything, it’s a great idea.”
Ely’s earlier research into law firms found that stereotypes were more strongly believed in those firms that had the smallest percentage of female partners. When there were just a few token higher-level women, she wrote, it gave everyone fewer examples of what female professionals look like. People resorted to stereotypes.
HuffPost also showed the EY presentation to Evelyn Carter, a senior consultant at Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm that’s worked with companies like Twitter, Slack and Zillow.
Carter said female empowerment training should take note of gender stereotypes in the workplace, and the EY presentation did this. But instead of teaching women how to dismantle those stereotypes, the EY presentation appears to advise women how to live with them.
“I think the goal of women’s empowerment is to go beyond ‘you should do it this way to exist in a man’s world,’” Carter said.
Many women really do enjoy empowerment programs, said Deborah Kolb, a professor emerita at Simmons College School of Management who has been organizing and running executive education programs for women for decades.
But once they leave a program with a “fix the women” approach, disillusionment sets in. “You feel good, but then you realize it doesn’t work,” said Kolb, who has advised companies like Deloitte, Time Warner and Eli Lilly.
When Ely does training for female executives, she said she tries to actually focus on leadership, looking at how they can create the conditions for their teams to thrive, particularly those team members who are also women or others who have been disadvantaged.
“As a leader, you’re enabling other people, creating conditions for other people to bring their best selves forward,” she said. “That’s why they follow you.”
You Have To ‘Work Around The Men’
EY has positioned itself as a company that is enlightened about women, frequently marketing its take on the value of women in business with hashtags (#WomenFastForward), surveys and programs. In a statement to HuffPost, it said, “EY has been ― and remains ― a highly recognized and award-winning leader in fostering a culture that promotes inclusion and a strong sense of belonging for all. We are, and remain, unrelenting in our effort to continue to set the standard for a best-in-class culture and work environment.”
Yet the firm has very few women in its higher ranks. Jane said that nearly all of the partners on the EY teams she worked on were male. Women make up only 12% of EY’s lead client service partners, according to the company’s own data from fiscal year 2018. The numbers for other top jobs are only slightly better. Overall, just 20.4% of EY’s partners and principals are women. (A lack of women in key roles is an industry-wide problem for accounting firms.)
Jane empathizes with Karen Ward, a former partner at EY who has said she was sexually harassed by a boss and then retaliated against when she complained to other senior partners, which HuffPost detailed in an investigation earlier this year. EY denies Ward’s charges.
Ward filed sex discrimination charges against the firm in 2018 and was forced to take her case to arbitration rather than to court. Because of onerous terms in her employment contract, she’s had to spend nearly $200,000 so far just to have her complaint heard.
Jane said she wasn’t explicitly sexually harassed at EY, but she faced discrimination. She was isolated by her male colleagues, left out of important meetings, made to sit along the wall in conference rooms and even told not to speak unless spoken to during conversations with clients, she told HuffPost.
Other women at the PPP training told her those experiences were standard at EY, she said. “The only way to succeed is to work around the men. I heard that over and over,” Jane said.
Although the firm could not address Jane’s specific claims without knowing her identity, EY said it “thoroughly” investigates any claims brought to its attention and imposes “harsh sanctions” when its policies are violated.
How To Make Women Feel Like Failures
For as long as there have been women in business, there have been experts telling them how to behave in order to get ahead.
Not that long ago, women were told to look and act more like men: wear shoulder pads, learn to golf. Then they were told they weren’t succeeding because so many of them were “opting out” to have babies. More recently, Sheryl Sandberg told women they just needed to “lean in” and be more ambitious.
None of that did much more than make each successive generation of women feel like failures. But over the past decade, there has been more in-depth research showing that it’s not women holding themselves back ― it’s an entire system designed to keep them in place.
Organizations built and run by men tend to exhibit entrenched biases that value confidence and assertiveness in men while penalizing those traits in women; judge men based on their potential, while assessing women on what they’ve already accomplished; insist on work hours that cater to men with wives at home taking care of everything else; and, of course, ignore when women are sexually harassed ― far more often than anyone was willing to admit until very recently.
The reasons that women hit a dead end in the corporate world have little to do with their outfits, their negotiating skills or the way they stand when talking to a man. And yet the idea that women just need to do better persists. That’s partly because there is something appealing about the idea that an individual can fix these issues. It is empowering to be told that the key to your success is in your hands.
But what Kolb and other researchers have found is that advancing women in an organization requires work on the part of the whole organization.
“It’s about understanding the social context within which you’re working and giving people strategies to succeed within that context,” she said. Companies need to look at how they make hiring and promotion decisions, how performance reviews are conducted, even how meetings are scheduled.
Jane, for example, said that even after she told her team that early morning meetings didn’t work for her, because she had to get her kids off to school, she was never accommodated. A number of regularly recurring meetings were scheduled between 8 and 9 a.m.
“I was the only woman on the team with young kids. They said it would be ridiculous to schedule just for one person,” she said.
Over her time at EY, Jane said her confidence was shattered. “They convinced me I had the worst personality,” she said. “It was gutting.”
She has a new job now. “I’m finding my sea legs slowly,” she said. “I think people are happy with my work. I think I’m gaining trust.”
As for her former employer, Jane said she was sharing the training document in the hopes the company would reconsider some of its practices. “I just want EY to change,” she said.
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