You know when you watch shows like Mad Men and cringe as you witness the sexist, patronizing and downright gross environments that women had to work in? "Thank goodness it's not like that anymore," we might say with a sigh of relief.
Well, hold on to your pencil skirts, mamas.
The Huffington Post recently shared a story in which they report on a 2018 training at Ernst & Young, one of the largest accounting firms. This training entitled "Power-Presence-Purpose" was allegedly intended to help women do better in the workplace, apparently by pretending that it is 1960.
Huffington Post shared a few quotes pulled directly out of the presentation:
Women should strive to be "polished," having a "good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type."
"Don't flaunt your body―sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women)."
Women should be aware of their tendencies to "speak briefly... scramble and miss the point" when speaking at a meeting.
(and my personal favorite):
"Women's brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it's hard for them to focus, the attendees were told. Men's brains are more like waffles. They're better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square."
Training participants were also asked to complete a self-assessment, in which they were to evaluate themselves on their "masculine/feminine qualities."
Ernst & Young was unavailable for comment when we called, but they have acknowledged publicly that an outside firm led the training, and they regret the messages shared.
Kelly Grier, managing partner of Ernst & Young, stated, "Let me start by saying how deeply I regret the negative association that this program has had on EY in the media, and to acknowledge that mistakes have been made...We celebrate differences and authenticity and the courage of conviction, and we encourage bold leadership and a culture of belonging," Grier said.
Okay. So a (pretty big) mistake was made, and they will, or they won't make it right. If anything, I was excited to see the backlash against this because it means that the world has, in fact, changed it's Mad Men ways (or is at least starting to), and this type of attitude is no longer acceptable.
But, like with every news story I read, my mind instantly goes to my children. What does my parental response to this news need to be?
I need to ensure that I am instilling the values that will enable my children to call trainings like this into question, instead of accepting them as truth.
Studies that find that starting at around age 12, girls experience a dramatic drop in confidence, but boys don't. There are many reasons behind this, but perhaps the most striking is this, shared in The Atlantic:
"...at an early age, parents and teachers frequently encourage and reward girls' people-pleasing, perfectionistic behavior, without understanding the consequences."
The consequence is seminars that teach women they have pancake brains.
In a way, I am selfishly appreciative that this issue has presented, because it serves as a sharp reminder that while we've made incredible advances, there is still so much work to be done.
Here are five things I am going to recommit to (for my daughter and my sons):
1. I will be hyper-aware of my language around my children
I vow to never let my children hear me complain about my body. And, I will renew my efforts to choose positive words around them. Instead of telling my daughter not to be bossy, I am going to say, "You're a good leader. Let's give your little brother a turn to practice being the leader now."
2. I will not make assumptions about my children based on their genders
There is no action, behavior or emotion that is made acceptable or unacceptable based on my child's gender.
3. I will teach my children that I trust their decision-making skills
It is so tempting to jump in and solve every little problem that creeps in throughout the day. While that is a temporary fix, in the long run, it does not teach them that they can depend on themselves.
An example of this happened just the other night when my daughter was really upset that an afterschool errand would mean she had to delay getting her homework done. "I won't be able to get it all done, mom!" Instead of jumping to the rescue—"I'll help you, don't worry"—I said,
"Have you done hard things before?"
"Yes," she answered.
"Since you've done hard things before, do you think you could do something hard again?"
… "yes" (although begrudgingly)
4. I will let them talk back to me
This one is hard. I have never been a "back-talker." I still struggle with it as an adult; which is precisely why I need to let my kids talk back.
They need to know that it is okay to have an opinion, even if it differs from the people with "more" power around you. Yes, I will teach them how to share those opinions respectfully, ("MOMMY IS A POOPY-PANTS" won't fly), but they have to learn—from me—that their opinion has value and their voice has meaning.
When I remember to do this (which is definitely not always) it looks like this:
My son starts whining about needing to leave the playground, and despite my instinct reaction of, "I said now!" I try:"This seems really important to you. Can you use words to explain to me what you're feeling?"
I have to say, about seven out of 10 times he is actually able to do this. Sometimes I let him "win," and we stay another five minutes, and sometimes he doesn't win, and we still leave. But my hope is that it conveys to them that standing up for themselves is a worthy cause.
5. I will let them choose what they wear
So much easier said than done, especially when it's the sparkly Halloween jack-o-lantern shirt with the rainbow unicorn pants and half of their costume from the first-grade play. In January. On picture day. (This is hyper-specific because this is a real outfit chosen by my daughter.)
But, choose it, she may.
She gets dressed for herself, not for anyone else. If she feels awesome (and is warm enough), great. It's not long before the world will start to tell her how to dress, so she needs that self-assuredness now.
I'm sad to say that while the news of the Ernst & Young story caught my attention, it didn't really surprise me. I am a woman after all, and I understand what it is to live in this society. But that doesn't mean I just accept it; not even close.
I am so appreciative of the women that came forward to report what happened and promise to reaffirm my commitment to ensuring that it stops with us. The next generation's leaders are in our arms right now.
Let's do right by them, and our future.