Women told they have pancake-like brains at ‘empowerment seminar’

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Jessica Rapana
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The company’s empowerment seminar, during which women were told their brains were smaller than men’s, was held at the held at the height of the #MeToo cycle. 

It’s been two years since the #MeToo movement went viral, enveloping public attention and igniting important and long-overdue conversations about the ways women face harassment, and often in the workplace, propelling companies to introduce better policies.

And yet, some companies appear to have blatantly missed the memo about overhauling workplace culture. For instance, by hosting a seminar for female employees on how to appease their male colleagues and comparing their brains to breakfast foods.

Such was the case with global accounting firm Ernst & Young, which has recently come under fire over an “empowerment seminar” held at its New Jersey office in June 2018. Huffpost reports the 30 female executives who attended were told of the differences between women’s and men’s brains, as well as being instructed on how to dress and curb their behaviour in order to mollify their male co-workers. 

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Jane (not her real name), a former executive director who attended the “woman-bashing event”, told Huffpost attendees were advised to have a “good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type”. But also: “Don’t flaunt your body – sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).”

Speaking of minds, women were also reportedly told their brains were 6% to 11% smaller than men’s and that it was harder for them to focus because their brains absorbed information poorly, like pancakes soak up syrup; while men’s brains, on the other hand, were more akin waffles: full of squares that could collect information easily.

Which, for the record, is false. According to cognitive neuroscientist and author of The Gendered Brain, Gina Rippon, any sex differences in the brain, including in size, are negligible. 

“The idea of the male brain and the female brain suggests that each is a characteristically homogenous thing and that whoever has got a male brain, say, will have the same kind of aptitudes, preferences and personalities as everyone else with that ‘type’ of brain. We now know that is not the case,” she told The Guardian

“We are at the point where we need to say, ‘Forget the male and female brain; it’s a distraction, it’s inaccurate.’ It’s possibly harmful, too, because it’s used as a hook to say, well, there’s no point girls doing science because they haven’t got a science brain, or boys shouldn’t be emotional or should want to lead.”

But back to the seminar. Food analogies aside, attendees were also asked to fill out a “score sheet” in which traits such as being “ambitious”, “analytical” and having a “leadership abilities” were coloured masculine, while “loves children” and “childlike” were considered to be feminine.

Responding to Huffpost’s claims, an Ernst & Young spokesperson said: “Any isolated aspects are taken wholly out of context. We are proud of our long-standing commitment to women and deeply committed to creating and fostering an environment of inclusivity and belonging at EY, anything that suggests the contrary is 100% false.”

Lead image design: Alessia Armenise.


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Jessica Rapana

Jessica Rapana is a journalist based in London, and enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content. She is especially fond of news, health, entertainment and travel content, and drinks coffee like a Gilmore Girl.

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