The Problem with Gender Stereotypes in the Workplace

The recent controversy surrounding accountancy multinational Ernst & Young’s leadership training seminar, Power-Purpose-Presence, raised eyebrows because of its blatant perpetuation of damaging gender stereotypes. The content, geared towards the firm’s female employees, seemed to be pulled right out of a 19th-century manners manual, with advice on how women should dress to avoid too much attention and how they needed to cope with their purported lack of focus because their brains (“like pancakes” that soak up syrup) were not only wired differently but smaller than men’s brains (“like waffles” that retain syrup in those little square spaces). 

I had to check and double check the date of the seminar (June 2018) as well as the breakfast food comparison, because such blatant sexism (and general absurdity) in the workplace in the 21st century and amidst the #MeToo movement seemed too crazy to be true. 

But in fact it was true. Once called out, Ernst & Young quickly backtracked and said that it shouldn’t have offered the seminar to the some 150 women, which was “inconsistent with [its] core beliefs.” However, the very fact that it was offered at all, in all its outdated glory, is disturbing. 

Perhaps more mind-boggling were the positive evaluations from past attendees, including one senior executive who praised the seminar as “impactful.” Granted, only two such reviews were shared, and it’s likely that they were just drummed up as a knee-jerk response from E&Y’s PR team. But the seminar itself was created by an outside woman-owned firm, which apparently offers customized programs geared toward empowering women in the workplace

Sure, good intentions were there. The seminar was meant to help women be successful in the industry. It taught skills like dressing for success, networking, and effective interactions at meetings. The premise of the training seemed to be that since it’s a man’s world at Ernst & Young, women can make it to the top if they arm themselves with the proper tactics.

Sexism is alive and kicking in corporate America, and despite advances within the last several years, women still find themselves having to work extra hard to move up the corporate ladder or, as recent reports have revealed, to set foot on the first rung.

Certainly, the sexist nature of the seminar is downright offensive. But the fact is, sexism is alive and kicking in corporate America, and despite advances within the last several years, women still find themselves having to work extra hard to move up the corporate ladder or, as recent reports have revealed, to set foot on the first rung. It’s true that more women are occupying senior exec positions, but 1 in 5 women in the C-Suite is far from gender equity. This is especially true for women of color, who remain largely underrepresented in businesses

So is it unreasonable to want to offer women all the help they can get? To teach them how to succeed in the workplace by providing them with the skills to navigate their way around a male-dominated industry? 

Consider the recent controversy involving celebrity sommelier Anthony Cailan. He was accused of sexually assaulting several women, with whom he had had professional relationships. A New York Times article interviewed more than 30 women in the $300 billion-a-year industry, who revealed that sexual harassment is “routine” and sexual assault is “pervasive” in the wine business. Yikes. 

It perpetuates the kinds of stereotypes that we’re looking to eliminate—that women are generally lesser than men, and that men are always posing some kind of threat to their existence.

One would assume, then, that perhaps the most useful information for a woman wanting to succeed in the wine industry would be how to protect themselves within a hostile environment. 

Here’s the thing: the main problem with teaching women specific skills to navigate shark-infested waters—whether in the world of accountancy or wine—is not that it’s offensive and sexist, but that it teaches them that there are sharks that will always be a danger to them. 

In other words, it perpetuates the kinds of stereotypes that we’re looking to eliminate—that women are generally lesser than men, and that men are always posing some kind of threat to their existence. To teach women how to negotiate with men, dress so that men won’t view them as sexual objects, to speak more like men so that they’ll be understood by men, or even self-defense tactics to avoid being groped by men is to teach them that they always must be reacting or responding to men. It’s either be on the defense or be accommodating—neither of which is a good thing. 

In order to close the gap, there needs to be a shift in perspective that reframes the gender gap not as a women’s issue, but as a social issue. 

Why? Because it drives an even bigger wedge between the genders, establishing a clear divide between men and women. While it teaches women that their value is only measured against that of a man, it suggests to men that women are vulnerable and will always be scrabbling to catch up with them. And as research suggests, asking women to “lean in” or teaching them tactics to survive within a broken system can be counterproductive, because it places the burden of ending gender bias and the blame for the inequality solely on women

It’s important to recognize the lack of gender parity in the workplace. It’s important to highlight the gender gap in hiring and compensation practices. Through conscious policy changes, businesses can move forward to building a more equitable working environment. But at the same time, in order to close the gap, there needs to be a shift in perspective that reframes the gender gap not as a women’s issue, but as a social issue. 

Change has to be made at an organizational level.

Take the Power-Purpose-Presence seminar. A more effective seminar would have been open to all promising executives interested in moving up the corporate ladder. Rather than teaching skills to work around gendered obstacles, it would teach strategies for success that encouraged equity. For example, learning to respect colleagues despite differences and understanding the importance of acts of civility in the workplace allow for greater opportunities for individuals to speak up and be heard. Note to corporate America: civility and respect are gender neutral. 

This doesn’t mean that gender stereotypes should be ignored, however. The fact is, women and men do experience different challenges in the workplace because of them. It may be that a conversation about what these stereotypes are and how they impact work relations and performance needs to be included in every seminar that addresses workplace success. 


Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.


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