Photo credit: Michael Vi /

Don’t be shrill. Don’t directly face a male colleague when talking to them. Speak briefly. Phrase your ideas as thoughts and questions rather than statements. Don’t bleach your hair or wear your skirt too short.

These ideas, which could have been taken directly from a women’s behavior book from the 1950s, were delivered to 30 female executives at Ernst & Young in a training that happened in 2018.

The training, which went by the oddly Newspeak-ish name of Power-Presence-Purpose, took place during the height of the #MeToo movement. At the same time this backward-looking “leadership” training was happening, Ernst & Young was busy shoring up its sexual harassment policies after facing its own public #MeToo moment with Jessica Casucci, a partner at the firm, who won a discrimination suit after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted by a male partner.

Oddly, rather than dealing with policies around sexual harassment and working on a company-wide training of men on how to behave properly with their female colleagues, the Power-Presence-Purpose workshop was focused on self-improvement for women.

EY disagrees with the way the seminar’s content was characterized. “Any isolated aspects are taken wholly out of context,” the company said in a statement. EY also said it reviewed the evaluations of women who participated in the program who viewed it favorably. “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 training was framed as advice on how to be successful at EY. But one female employee, a former executive director at the firm (who went by a pseudonym because she feared career reprisals) shared her experience—and the 55-page training document on which the training was based.

One section of the document was all about women’s appearance: Be “polished,” have a “good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type.” But “Don’t flaunt your body—sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).” And the most important thing a woman can do to succeed as an executive is “signal fitness and wellness.”

Before the workshop, the women were given a “Masculine/Feminine Score Sheet” that had them rate how they adhered to typical gender-role stereotypes both inside and outside the office. The “masculine” traits included “acts as a leader,” “ambitious,” “strong personality,” and “willing to take a stand,” whereas the “feminine” traits included “affectionate,” “childlike, “gullible,” “loves children,” and “yielding.” As you see, none of the typically feminine traits involved leadership, which was supposed to be the focus of the Power-Presence-Purpose training.

The anonymous participant said the female executives were also coached on how to interact with men in the workplace. The advice included “don’t directly confront men in meetings, because men perceive this as threatening. (Women do not.) Meet before (or after) the meeting instead,” and “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.” And, of course, “don’t be too aggressive or outspoken.”

Women were also told that women’s brains are smaller than men’s, and they were told that “women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup, so it’s hard for them to focus” but “men’s brains are more like waffles; they’re better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square.”

EY says the Power-Presence-Purpose training is no longer offered “in that form” and continues to position itself as a company that’s “woke” when it comes to women’s issues. However, like most large accounting firms, EY has very few women in the high-ranking positions. For example, women make up only 12 percent of the firm’s global client service partners, according to its data for fiscal year 2018, although women do make up 26% of global executives.

In an era where women are trying to follow Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to “lean in” in order to advance in corporate culture, EY’s “Power-Presence-Purpose” workshop seems designed to set women executives up for failure or hold them responsible for “fixing” an entrenched and male-biased system by behaving “properly.”