What not to do to improve gender inclusion? Ernst & Young’s recent blunder

Ernst & Young’s held a seminar for its women executives that is a textbook example of what not to do to close the gender gap

There is an lot I want to share and write on the topics of holistic leadership, wellness and happiness at work and how to implement measures to foster employee’s performance. But Monday, I was particularly compelled to write about this particular topic of gender diversity after reading reports of a training seminar that took place at Ernst & Young last year.

It is no secret that the Me Too movement has prompted many businesses to embark on some soul searching about gender inclusion and to take proactive action in their midst, notably in respect to sexual harassment.

Large companies have revised their policies and implemented new training to root out any rampant sexual abuse and power play that beleaguers workplaces across America and globally. And so Ernst & Young, a major player in the international accounting world, has followed suit.

For this large corporation where the gender gap is considerable, promoting diversity and inclusiveness is crucial in order to attract and retain engaged and valuable professionals. Building a holistic business where all employees feel welcome and respected is after all one of the paths to success for organizations.

It is thus no surprise that Ernst and Young would be putting their best foot forward by embracing a mission and a persona of workplace empowerment.

To align their actions with the value and purpose they pursue as “Builders of a better working world” and as a champion of diversity and inclusiveness as “EY sees diversity as a vital strategic advantage”, Ernst & Young organized in June 2018 a training for 30 female executives.

This particular training seminar on leadership and empowerment was called PPP, short for Power-Presence-Purpose and was meant to guide female attendees on how to be successful at Ernst & Young.

The content of the presentation handout rattled one of the participant so much that she contacted the Huffington Post and shared with them the 55-pagre document. And when I read some of the excerpts in the article, I was baffled by its absolutely condescending, patronizing and sexist approach. 

How to insult the intelligence of women with proven professional talent

I will start with some highlights from the section that deals with appearance at work,

... these very professional women are advised to “be polished”, have a “good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type”.

This is followed by “Don’t flaunt your body – sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women)” and the recommendation that the most important thing women working at E&Y can do is “to signal fitness and wellness.”

If you think I am overreacting, let me also add the contrast in communication styles that is also underscored in the document’s “Invisible Rules”. Women tend to “speak briefly” in a meeting because it seems “women often ramble and miss the point”.

A man on the other hand “speaks at length, because he really believes in his idea”. Plus, men are more effective at interrupting because women “wait their turn (that never comes) and raise their hands.” 

The anonymous participant, who was called Jane in the Huffington Post article, also shared the pre-seminar Q&A they had to fill out. Titled “Masculine/Feminine Score sheet”, it reads like a list of gender stereotyped traits.

Jane reported that what she took away from the exercise was that if you want to be successful at Ernst & Young and not be castigated by both men and women, a woman should be consciously displaying women characteristics rather than masculine ones.

Then Jane contributed some of the notes she took during the seminar. The advice doled out by Marsha Clarke, the outside consultant hired to give the presentation, was just as appalling:

  • Women should not confront men in meetings “because men perceive this as threatening. Women should instead speak privately with the male coworker before or after the meeting.
  • Another recommendation was that when women have a conversation will a male colleague, they should cross their legs and sit at an angle because face to face is also perceived as threatening to men.
  • Women should also avoid being “too aggressive or outspoken.”
  • As if the sexism level needed to shoot through the roof, the participants were also told that women’s brain are 6% to 11% smaller than men’s brains. In the most condescending comparison between pancakes and waffles – not kidding, read the article for the actual story – the speaker implied men’s brains are better able to focus than women’s.

It is easy to debunk the stereotypes highlighted above. For example, Neuroscience has already uncovered the fact brain size does not determine the brain’s ability to function. What is of concern to me is that this approach of Gender Diversity & Inclusion is utterly divisive and counter-productive.

How this event came to be approved by higher ups, as part of a 21st Century women empowerment seminar at a company like Ernst & Young, is what I am questioning.

The facts: the state of gender distribution at Ernst & Young

Ernst and Young publishes many numbers on their website that highlight the issues they are facing as the employer of 270,000 people. Their turnover, measured by their attrition rate, has increased by 2% between 2016 and 2018 to reach 21%. The additional 5,400 employees who left come with a financial burden.

But since more women left than men, it also appears Ernst and Young is not successful in decreasing their gender gap.

At the C-Suite level, for example, the distribution of global executives was 28% women and 72% men in 2016, but in 2018, it fell to 26% women for 74% men. And when looking at the larger pool of lead client servers, the share of women, in spite of an increase, is still only 12% against 88% men.

In short, Ernst & Young, is a male dominated workplace that seems to struggle to retain female professionals.

Why the shortcut of “fixing” women is counter-productive in closing the gender gap

Clearly, approaching gender diversity in a large company like Ernst & Young, whose culture has traditionally and still is mostly defined and dominated by men, is no small feat.

Like most companies nowadays, E&Y has researched and is aware that they must do better to close the gender gap. I can see why it would have appeared easier and less costly to train the smaller number of women executives. 

And indeed, “women do appreciate empowerment programs” as stated by Deborah Kolb, a professor emerita at Simmons College School of Management, who has advised large organizations like Deloitte, Time Warner and Eli Lilly.

But if these programs focus on “fixing women”, teaching them “how to manage themselves” around their male colleagues, and basically telling them they are less “intelligent” than their male colleagues and thus must tread careful, they are simply doomed to failure.

Women want to be able to work fairly and equally, on merit, alongside their male colleagues.

Women should not have to behave any differently than their male coworkers and should not feel ostracized. Any request to behave differently around men at work only shows leadership is missing the whole point of gender diversity and inclusion altogether.

Corporate leaders must exhibit behaviors aligned with the values they claim to champion

Most importantly, if leadership perpetuates the sexist stereotypes of the old workplaces where women’s voice and work are stifled, professional women will take their expertise elsewhere.

They’ll just move on to workplaces that do not just claim to uphold the diversity value, but also foster and behave as inclusive cultures. Which is exactly what Jane did.

This article and particular situation also highlight a larger phenomenon regarding happiness and wellbeing at work that is now proliferating in many organizations.

Most businesses are well aware that qualified talented professionals are more attracted by cultures that foster values they share.

 In order to attract and keep the more productive purpose-led employees, those organizations want to show the world they are proactive in morphing into holistic places where it is great to work.

And so nowadays, we see many attempts to increase employee engagement through “Band-Aid” strategies. A nice ping-pong table, healthier food in the cafeteria, a seminar in a nice place etc.

But to truly increase engagement, a business must examine its social role, its work flow, its culture, its hiring, its promoting, its reviewing. In short, is the company fostering the conditions that support their employees in doing the best job possible?

No ping-pong table will fix the fact a business has a cumbersome outdated software, that a department never has the resources to put a product out on time or the fact that the employees are not heard by management on serious work issues.

As much as it is a major and commendable progress when an organization claims their willingness to champion a better workplace, if their actions contradicts their purpose, they miss the mark.

In the particular case of Ernst & Young and their gender gap issue, it is clear they should examine much more closely the social context in which women and men interact. I also believe that gender diversity and inclusion training should be designed and intended for both men and women. If they are to work better together, training together both men and women is a start.

In this respect, Emotional Intelligence education would be very appropriate. It has already shown to be an amazing means to nurture communication, collaboration, engagement, resilience and happiness at work.

Being aware of our own behaviors and learning to manage them to feel better, learning to understand our colleagues and our interactions with them is highly empowering. It takes the stress out of confusing situations!

Above all, the better way to close the gender gap at Ernst & Young or to create any meaningful impact in shaping a better workplace and culture in an organization, is for the owner and executives at the very top to embrace, support and attend any training that has far reaching consequences on the social context of their company.

If a company is to turn a corner and leave in the past the culture and behaviors that weigh them down it, it takes the whole organization’s involvement, beginning with its owners.

The men and women at the top must believe and uphold the values they claim and thy must embody them! It actually must start with leadership modeling the more holistic behaviors they want to see happen.

For Ernst & Young to empower and retain the professional women who work for them, they have to stamp out any behavior that divides and they should work on creating a climate that favors both men and women integration and collaboration.

They must appear authentic by aligning their values with the way the business is conducted. And it starts with treating their highly qualified female executives with respect and with the men who act unprofessionally knowing there will be consequences to power play.

Cassis Moussu, founder Healthy Work Warriors

Update: E&Y now admits the content of the seminar was offensive

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