Internet whistle-blowers are in an uproar over leaked information from an Ernst & Young leadership training for female employees. And, once again, the uproar is warranted.
According to journalists at HuffPost who interviewed one of the attendees and reviewed training materials she brought forth, the seminar, led by an external training and consulting firm, delivered a day and a half of instruction to a group of thirty executives -- all women -- on how to position themselves for success in the workplace.
As part of the training, attendees were asked to fill out a "Feminine/Masculine Score Sheet" where they assessed on a scale from to to five how closely they identified with certain gender descriptors. Under a column labeled "Feminine" there are words like affectionate, gullible, and shy; the "Masculine" category includes ambitious, aggressive, and self-sufficient.
Sexist tropes in the leaked documents are too many in number -- and, frankly, too absurd -- to share again. At a high level, the training stressed that women must learn to play by the rules of a male-dominated workplace in order to rise in the ranks. (To give just a bit of color on what those rules entail: the materials advise women to be "polished" and "minimize distractions from their skill set," such as attire that disfavors their body type or flaunts their bodies -- because apparently "sexuality scrambles the mind").
I suspect that in top accounting firms where 20 percent of partners are women, women probably walk into male-dominated spaces every day and feel pressure to adapt their behavior. I can relate. I was a corporate litigator on Wall Street and in-house at large companies for many years. I'm now a founder and have raised millions in venture capital for my company, The Riveter, while visibly pregnant.
Trust me -- I am not impervious to the discomfort that sometimes arises when you're the only woman in a room of men in suits.
But the solution is not to indoctrinate women to "fit in" (whatever that means -- the creators of this particular seminar seem to think it has something to do with not being "threatening" to male peers) and assimilate into a sexist work culture. The fact that a consulting firm offers executive programming based on this flawed notion -- and even more so that an industry leader that employs tens of thousands in our country contracts it as leadership development -- is terrifying.
Corporate America: when women request resources to help them succeed in the workplace, this is definitely not what we mean. Leadership training like this does not help women. But, for any decision-maker at a company that might have stumbled upon this column, I'll offer a few things that do, in fact, help women rise to positions of leadership.
Training supervisors on a baseline of correct management, such as focusing less on what a woman wears to work and more on the value of her work.
Creating safe work environments where HR takes action upon notice of sexual harassment. (And, on that note, banning forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims is also a great move.)
Fostering a work culture that does not admit men chronically interrupting women in meetings and where male allies call out micro-aggressions.
Promoting transparency in compensation to help inform negotiation and combat the gender wage gap.
Actively debunking misogynistic myths about women in the workplace. Challenging these notions when you hear them.
This list is nowhere near enough, but it's a start. And, the great news is there actually are myriad of legitimate resources out there, true subject matter experts, to help companies build more equitable workplaces. What we can't do is reinforce sexism in the workplace under the pretense of dismantling it. Going backward is not an option.