Diversity & Inclusion

Do’s and Don’ts of Female Retention and Advancement

Research shows women are graduating from college and professional programs in roughly equal numbers to men—in fact, their graduation rates in many fields are outpacing their male counterparts’. And yet, when we look at the upper echelons of leadership, men greatly outnumber women.


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Many businesses are concerned by these trends and have invested in retaining women and minority candidates to ensure their success. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach this problem. Below, we discuss a case study in “the wrong way.”

How to Lose a Gal in 10 Minutes

In June 2018, the Hoboken, New Jersey, office of Ernst & Young—one of the largest accounting firms in the country—held a seminar for approximately 30 of its female executives. The training was billed as advice on how to be successful, but it appears to have taken the form of guidance to women on how best to change themselves to allow for their advancement in a male-dominated field.

Participants report they were told to maintain a nice haircut and manicured nails and to wear well-cut attire that complements their body type. They were also told not to flaunt their bodies or show skin because sexuality scrambles the brain. Women were also counseled on how best to communicate with men, including advice for how to sit when approaching conflict so they aren’t perceived as threatening.

Most shockingly, one person reports attendees were told women’s brains are 6% to 11% smaller than men’s—and their brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup, so it’s hard for them to focus, while men’s brains are better able to focus because information collects in relevant groupings, like syrup in each square of a waffle. A unique analogy to be sure.

What We Should Be Doing

The approach Ernst & Young’s presenter used misses the mark. The business case for diversity is that more minds—with different life experiences yielding different problem-solving approaches—lead to better decision-making, fewer errors, and more profit.

Counseling women to fit into a man’s world and find ways to be inoffensive rather than distracting doesn’t benefit the business. Instead, the focus should be on shaping corporate culture so all individuals feel free to contribute to discussions in an open and authentic way—so we’re focused on meeting the business’ goals, not watching our posture, word choice, tone, clothing, and manicures to ensure we don’t cause offense.

As a wise colleague communicated to us recently, the goal of gender equality isn’t that we should all work long hours and be equally miserable but that we should drop gender stereotypes so women who love to work can commit themselves to it without being labeled as cold and abandoning their families, and men who wish to have a better work/life balance can seek it without being labeled weak and uncommitted to their careers. Encouraging freedom of choice, thought, and expression benefits us all and improves morale.

Bottom Line

The advancement and retention of women and minorities isn’t about assimilating everyone into the current culture. In light of the weekly reports we receive of high-profile harassment and discrimination claims, we should recognize we face cultural problems that require a broad adjustment in how we view diversity and inclusion in the American workplace.

Ernst & Young provides one, stark example of the need for cultural shift, but there are more subtle examples in nearly every workplace. With spring cleaning in mind, now is an excellent time to start cleaning up your diversity efforts through inclusion, rather than asking everyone to fit the same mold.

Lauren E.M. Russell is an attorney with Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, in Wilmington, Delaware. You can reach her at lrussell@ycst.com

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