“Don’t flaunt your body – sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).” Affirmations of this kind could be read in the 55-page program directed to 24 women executives as part of their training to incorporate them in a male-dominated firm.

The Huffington Post revealed the striking content of an E&Y’s program directed to women in their New Jersey´s office in June 2018. After such a program was condemned in various magazines and in social media, E&Y claimed that they stopped the program of which they did not know the content as they hired an external consulting firm to develop such training. It was revealed by an unsatisfied female employee who took part in the course and was astonished by its contents. Until she revealed it and the firm stopped the course, the program was taken by more than 150 female executives.

Ernst & Young is one of the biggest accounting firms and considered one of the “Big Four” with 270,000 employees around the world. The firm states to be committed and is award-winning at fostering inclusion and a sense of belonging, although women compose solely between 12 and 21% of key roles in different areas of the company. The program was directed to new women employees at its recently opened offices in New Jersey.

The seminar was directed to train women executives. In the 55-page presentation, it could be read phrases like: “Good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type.” So, the idea was to tell women what their physical appearance should look like, not to mention other parts where it was stated that they should “signal fitness and wellness.” “Don’t flaunt your body – sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).” Perhaps they tried to be inclusive mentioning that it revolts women and men, but as a statement exclusively directed to women, it is certainly not.

The presentation had a full section on “appearance blunders” and another on “how to dress and act nicely around men and women”.  On top of that, there was a survey on how closely they adhered to gender-traits. They were given a Masculine/ Feminine Score Sheet where all feminine traits involved emotions and children and masculine traits surrounded aggressivity and leadership skills. During the seminar, women were told to not show their skin if they wanted men to focus on what they were saying and to not confront men directly as they could feel threatened. The message wasn´t always clear, but the content spoke for itself: how to fit women into male territory.

The Power-Presence-Purpose (PPP) program´s aim was to empower female executives. Some women stood up and declared they were very grateful for the training received. And here is the major problem of programs like this, supposed to help women climb to the top. More than 150 women received this training until it was condemned by one unhappy executive who could not believe what she was experiencing. The majority felt it normal, and “very useful” which means that attitudes of this kind have been normalized in the corporate realm. As soon as it was made public, the firm stopped the program, although they didn’t mention if they stopped hiring the services of the responsible consulting firm for it. This program and others of its nature (which surely still exist) help perpetuate gender roles. Not to mention that obviously throughout the whole training there was no consideration of non-binary people. Women are told how to adapt and insert themselves in a male-dominated world without revolving the latter too much. I wonder if there was a program for men to properly integrate women in the workplace, without feeling threatened and helping have their voices heard. Surely not.

Looking at the bigger picture, the program represents the difficulty for women to reach key positions at firms, and if so, by being themselves. Women are underrepresented among the Big Four accounting firm partners. According to a study carried by the CFA Institute, women only represent 15% of the engagement partners in charge of the S&P 500 company’s audit and only 11% of the S&P 100. The translation of this is the lack of women in key positions, number that diminishes when the importance of the role increases. As a consequence, women face the difficulty to take the lead in the private sphere. Very often, accounting firms work as a conduit of transferrable skills into other companies. Therefore, if women do not get to the engagement partner positions in accounting firms, it is way more unlikely that they will make an appearance in the corporate world. Even though women and men equally start working at accounting firms, this does not translate into the same numbers at partnership roles, where the number of women significantly decreases. Thus, there must be something that is clearly not working in the company’s commitment to foster inclusivity and equality, and least of all, with programs directed to women to adapt to a male world.