Editor’s Note: Lynn Smith is the anchor of “On the Story” on HLN, which airs Monday-Friday 12-2 p.m. ET. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Women’s brains are smaller than men’s brains and women’s brains (are) more like pancakes and men’s brains (are) more like waffles.”
This left me speechless on live television.
The analogy, which came from the idea that women have a harder time focusing because their brain absorbs information while men are able to collect and organize information into little compartments, was presented to about 30 high-level female executives at the very prominent accounting firm Ernst & Young in June 2018, according to HuffPost’s Emily Peck. The company hired Marsha Clark & Associates, (not the lawyer), an outside consultant, to give a seminar it calls Power-Presence-Purpose.
Peck joined me on HLN’s “On the Story” to further discuss what some are calling a blatant example of misogyny in the workplace.
And as if the waffle/pancake comparison wasn’t head-scratching enough, there was also advice like, “Don’t flaunt your body – sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women),” according to training documents obtained by HuffPost. The women were told to be polished and avoid “appearance blunders” such as plunging necklines, too-short skirts, bottle blonde, too much makeup, and even broken nails were discouraged. CNN has not independently verified the documents obtained by HuffPost.
Peck told me about a conversation that she had with a woman who attended the seminar and has since left the firm. “She said she felt like a piece of meat hearing about if she showed too much skin, she would distract the men she worked with. She was told not to look men in the eye because it would be seen as aggressive.”
The hit TV show “Mad Men” reminded us there was a real and now dated – at least we hoped – thinking that women in the workplace are to listen and speak only when spoken to. This is 2019 not 1950. And even then, would a major corporation hire a company to conduct a training that put those suggestions in writing? We are better than this, right?
In an email, a spokesperson for Marsha Clark, shared the following from Clark:
“Marsha Clark & Associates’ programs have helped thousands of women around the world develop the tools and qualities that will help them have success in the business world. We’ve done this work for two decades now and are proud of our record, of our collaborative relationships with major corporations and most of all of the outstanding feedback we’ve received from the women who have benefited from our work.”
When asked to confirm the allegations in Peck’s reporting, an Ernst & Young spokesperson gave me this statement:
“The Power – Presence – Purpose program was under review and has been canceled. This voluntary program, which was delivered to a small group of EY professionals, does not reflect EY’s values or culture and should not have been offered to any of our women. To ensure this can never happen again, we are undertaking a comprehensive review of our processes and controls around program content as there is no question that elements of the program included offensive content that is inconsistent with our core beliefs.”
Although the company has now canceled the program, in a time when women work tirelessly to be seen as equal in the office despite being paid 82 cents on the dollar to men, we should think about what damage may have already been done.
Peck told me that “overall in this presentation, women were just told again and again various stereotypes about how they allegedly behave in the workplace. Like they don’t negotiate or ask for what they want. These are widely debunked theories and stereotypes, but there was no indication given to the women who attended that they were untrue.”
This example is in the workplace but aren’t ideas like this planted in women’s minds much earlier? Just last month, a high school in Kentucky refused to let girls into a dance because their dresses violated the school’s dress code by being too short, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. But a mom and her daughter, according to Yahoo Lifestyle, claimed that the dress code was arbitrarily enforced.
A mom of one of the teens said officials stopped the students outside of their homecoming dance at Eastern High School in Middletown, Kentucky, to measure their hemlines, according to the blog Mood-Disordered Mama.
Eastern High School did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment, but the school apologized in a letter to parents shared with Yahoo Lifestyle and said that “the dress code for our formal dances will be reviewed by student, parent and teacher representatives so that we can gather valuable feedback and suggestions that will help ensure the dress code is fair and equitable for all students.”
In 2016, Woodstock Union Middle School in Vermont called an assembly for just the girls to tell them they needed to follow the school dress code, according to the Valley News. According to the Valley News, a parent said that one teacher told the girls that not complying with the school’s dress code could distract boys from learning.
The school was accused of being sexist after parents reported their daughters came home saying they were told tight jeans and tank tops are unacceptable.
Where is the code of conduct telling young boys they shouldn’t objectify women based on the fact that they can see their shoulders or knees? Then-superintendent, Alice Thomason Worth, told Valley News “at this point in time, it looks like a lapse of judgment.” Worth said that “We will work our way through this and we will be as transparent and open as we can. I know in my heart there was no malicious intent on the part of any employee.”
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But does all of this go to the heart of a dated “she’s asking for it” mentality? Mary Beth Banios is the superintendent for Woodstock Union now and told me in a statement that the incident was not during her tenure, but “Policy adjustments were made, and no further concerns have arisen. Our school community highly values the equitable and respectful treatment of our students and have policies and procedures in place that support this value.”
In schools, the hallways of corporate America, and on college campuses, many girls and women are still battling the “she’s asking for it” mentality and the powerful men who think it’s OK to make a move on women because she seems to want it. The “Me too” movement taught many men they were wrong. Shouldn’t we be training boys and men to see, hear and respect women regardless of what they are wearing?