Why Gender-Specific Training Is A Really Bad Idea

By Leslie Zieren, The McCalmon Group, Inc.

Ernst & Young, one of the world's largest accounting firms, provided a training seminar called Power-Presence-Purpose (PPP) to 30 female executives at its new office in Hoboken, New Jersey, in June 2018. The training focused on how women need to change to work in a "man's world" and included the use of many out-of-date and discriminatory gender stereotypes.

An external vendor created and taught the day-and-a-half-long seminar on leadership and empowerment, which claimed to be teaching promising women how to network, negotiate, and improve their teams. 

Some of the training aspects included:

Before the workshop began, female participants were asked to score how "masculine" or "feminine" they were based on gender stereotypes ("shy" and "childlike" for feminine, "analytical" and "acts like a leader" for masculine).

One section of the training focused on women's appearance. It recommended that women not distract from their skills and performance by flaunting their bodies and included a list of "appearance blunders," such as "plunging neckline" and "too-short skirts." It stated, "Don't flaunt your body ? sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women)." 

The training also contained other gender stereotypes. It advised women to avoid being shrill, aggressive, or outspoken. The "Invisible Rules" section of the training states that women "speak briefly" and "often ramble and miss the point," while a man will "speak at length ? because he really believes in his idea."

Attendees were taught that women's brains are six to 11 percent smaller than men's and that "women's brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it's hard for them to focus." On the other hand, "Men's brains are more like waffles. They're better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square."

An attendee, who was "appalled" by the content of the seminar, provided the 55-page presentation to HuffPost.

Ernst & Young said that it had been reviewing the course for months and would no longer use that version of the training. The employer said it offered the training because some women had requested it. The statement added that information from the training was taken out of context and claims that women who have taken it have given the training positive reviews.

Only 20 percent of the partners and principals at Ernst & Young are female. Emily Peck "Women At Ernst & Young Instructed On How To Dress, Act Nicely Around Men" huffpost.com (Oct. 21, 2019).

Commentary

Training content and implementation should avoid use of gender stereotypes and myths except to use as examples of what illegal harassment or discrimination can look like and how to avoid it.

Don't divide employees and managers into "male" and "female" groups for training. First, it underscores the gender equality issue, and second, such categorizations are problematic for non-binary employees and managers. Transgender, genderfluid, and gender non-conforming individuals are discriminated against by the use of gender-specific training.

According to Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School, the idea that women and men behave differently in the workplace is not supported by empirical evidence. However, company culture, she said, can contribute to women seeming less confident or less ambitious than men.

Your training reflects your organization's culture. With that in mind, it is no wonder that the company in the article only has women in 20 percent of the partner and principal positions.

Check your training content. Check your language for anything that could be perceived as a bias and that perpetuates stereotypes. Do you say "policeman" or "police officer"? "Fireman" or "firefighter"? Do you say "female doctor" or "female lawyer" instead of just "doctor" or "lawyer"?  Do you say "councilman" rather than "council member"?

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