Women at US accounting giant Ernst and Young were subject to a wildly offensive seminar last year, where they were taught how to dress and act in a male-dominated workplace. Now, a 55-page document from the seminar – that aimed to teach female executives how to behave in front of male colleagues - has been leaked by a former employee.
‘Women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it’s hard for them to focus,’ attendees of the seminar were reportedly told. ‘Men’s brains are more like waffles. They’re better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square.’
In a separate exercise, the women were told to rate their personality traits as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, with a lower score should they exhibit more masculine behaviour – which was characterised as having a ‘strong personality’, ‘leadership abilities’, being ‘ambitious’ and ‘analytical’ versus feminine traits of being ‘gullible’, ‘childlike’ and of course, ‘lov[ing] children’.
The whistle-blower, who has only been acknowledged as Jane by HuffPost – the publication that broke the story – also says they were given a list of ‘invisible rules’ that stated women ‘speak briefly’, ‘phrase their thoughts as questions’ and ‘wait their turn’. According to Jane, these ‘rules’ were offered as expectations with no suggestion that these rules should be broken.
And it doesn’t end there: the startling presentation also advised women on how to converse with men. ‘Don’t directly confront men in meetings, because men perceive this as threatening,’ Jane wrote in her notes from the presentation. ‘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.’
Don’t directly confront men in meetings, because men perceive this as threatening
The presentation then moves on to how women should look in the workplace, stating that the most important thing they can do is ‘signal fitness and wellness’. ‘[Have a] good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type,’ the document reads. ‘Don’t flaunt your body ― sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).’
While you may read these rules and assume they are from decades old presentations never updated, you would be wrong. Because, this presentation was actually held in response to #MeToo, according to HuffPost. They state that having recently recovered from a public complaint by a fellow partner at the firm, the accounting giant held a series of presentations during the height of #MeToo.
Have contracted an external vendor - Marsha Clark - to hold the seminar, Ernst and Young have since stated that the seminar has been under review for months and was not offered after the June 2018 session.
‘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 a statement.
Naturally, many are sceptical – and many are asking, at EY and in offices all over the world: how should an employee respond if they encounter problematic 'advice' like this in the office? What should you do if your boss or you boss's boss or an external person that your boss hired says or does something offensive?
According to employment lawyer Alexandra Mills, it depends on the size of the organisation and how comfortable the employee feels about confronting the sexist attitudes.
‘Ask yourself, is there someone you trust and can confide in? Maybe HR or a peer?’ she told Grazia. ‘Ideally have an informal chat to voice concerns rather than go in all guns blazing – some companies are still clueless and need gentle pushing in the right direction. If the employee feels the organisation is turning a blind eye they can escalate via grievance procedure, but it’s worth taking advice before doing so.'
Unfortunately, there is no avenue in employment law unless the employee has experienced discrimination directly or indirectly. And so making a complaint to HR may be the best option.
While Mills is confident that situations such as EY’s seminar are unusual given the impact of #MeToo, recent research into how little workplaces have changed two years on from the start of the movement suggests otherwise.
We can only hope with more women being brave enough to whistle-blow on such shameless ignorance, more and more companies will be forced to address the inequality that flows through their organisation.