Ernst & Young (EY) has received a lot of bad press lately for a training program it has not even offered for over a year. In summary, the articles have suggested that certain guidance given to women on how to be successful at Ernst & Young is outdated and intended to “fix” women when what really needs to be “fixed” is the culture of EY. See, for example: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/women-ernst-young-how-to-dress-act-around-men_n_5da721eee4b002e33e78606a
I want to offer a perspective that I think might help us all view this situation in a more balanced way. I am not defending EY or the women who have spoken out. I just want to suggest that the right answer might not be as clear-cut as has been depicted in the press. I want to use what I see as some of the complexities of “Dress for Success” as an example to explain my point of view:
1. It is a good thing to make unspoken rules explicit. In every organization there are unspoken rules of the game. They may not be written down as formal policy, but they exist none-the-less. How to dress for success is often one of them. There are many ways to learn what these unspoken rules are: You see what successful individuals are doing, for example, how they are dressing. You detect patterns and begin to act accordingly. Or your mentor shares it with you very explicitly. Your mentor may say, for example, I think it would help you get noticed if you upgraded your wardrobe. (S)he then offers some examples. You then have an opportunity to dialog with that person who knows and cares for you about what would be an appropriate course of action for you personally. But in an organization where there are too few senior women, it is difficult to see a pattern (because the data set is too small) and the few women who could serve as mentors are stretched too thin to individually coach each and every woman in this way. Highlighting these unwritten rules of the game in a safe, group context so that women can talk about them and decide the right course of action for themselves personally is an appropriate way to go about it. Each individual can then decide to conform to conventional standards, be different, or even to try to change the norms. So kudos to EY for trying to make the unwritten, explicit so women can decide their own best course of action.
2. Appropriate dress is culture-specific. What is acceptable dress in the US differs from what is acceptable in the Middle East or in Asian countries. What is acceptable in the US is even different from what is acceptable in Europe as you will see below. The type of industry you are working in makes a difference as well. The consumer goods industry in which I worked had a much more casual dress norm than the financial services industry, for example. When it comes to working with clients, a good rule of thumb is to dress in accordance with the norms of that client. When I worked at Accenture, I would travel with more clothes than I really needed because different clients had different dress norms. This is not denying who I am. This is showing respect for the client who is paying for our services. So it is quite possible that EY was highlighting that their clients expect a certain manner of dress. Isn’t it better to know than to not know?
3. Sex can get in the way of being taken seriously. Now, I acknowledge this is somewhat situation-dependent. I do not see women scuba dive-masters taken any less seriously just because wearing a bikini shows a lot of skin. But I have seen this in formal office settings. For example, when I worked in London there was a brilliant young female strategy analyst who came to the table with incredible analysis of client business performance and ideas for improving it. And she showed a lot of cleavage. I observed men sitting in conference rooms staring at her breasts and then seemingly not registering the brilliant insight she had just shared. Is it right that the men focused more on the breasts than the wisdom? No, but the reality is that they did, or, at least, that is how it appeared to me. Would she want to know this and then make an informed choice about what to do? I would think so.
You are probably wondering what I, as a senior leader, did in the situation of the brilliant strategy analyst who was not getting a fair hearing from her male colleagues. Did I talk with her? Did I talk with the men? I really wrestled with what was the appropriate thing to do in this situation. My initial inclination was to share with her what I observed and let her make an informed choice about what to do. As I pondered this overnight, I saw on the news an interview with Cherie Blair, the wife of the former prime minister Tony Blair. She was advocating for some cause I can no longer remember. And she was showing just as much cleavage as the young strategy analyst I was concerned about. She was surely being taken seriously. She was a role model in the UK. I concluded it was not appropriate for a woman from the US to speak otherwise to this young UK woman. I was getting a lesson in point number 2, appropriate dress is culture-specific. What I thought was appropriate was different in the UK. And as a result, I did not think there was anything that needed to be made explicit as in number 1.
But I was still struggling with number 3. In my opinion, sex was getting in the way, even if subtly. Confronting my observations and my theory with any of the parties was not likely to change anything and likely to antagonize many. Because it was so subtle, I had no way to prove it anyway. So I chose a different path–to continually reinforce the business performance ideas this analyst had proposed and to acknowledge where the ideas came from. Within a week, she was the hero on the team for coming up with the ideas we needed.
These situations are complex and determining the right course of action for each individual is not straight forward. But by talking about unwritten rules and hard-to-discuss reality, we improve each individual’s ability to respond and collectively the organization’s ability to accommodate individuality. It is not about fixing anything.