Opinion: It’s not women who need fixing

Women are not the problem.

There has always been something grotesque about the idea that they are. But to embrace that idea in the #MeToo era is not just grotesque, but clueless. It suggests that you slept through a reckoning that has shifted the Zeitgeist.

So somebody please tell Ernst & Young to wake up and smell the 2019.

The London-based multinational business services firm has been struggling to contain the fallout of a story posted by HuffPost last week about a June 2018 training seminar at its office in Hoboken. “Power-Presence-Purpose,” conducted, according to the firm, by a third-party contractor, was supposed to offer female employees advice to help them navigate the workplace.

And it did. Problem is, the advice it offered hasn’t been relevant since Ricky spanked Lucy.

“Women’s brains,” this group of women was told, “absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it’s hard for them to focus. Men’s brains are more like waffles. They’re better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square.”

There was more. Women were advised to avoid “crying,” being “rambling and redundant” or speaking in a “high-pitched or shrill” voice. One attendee told HuffPost she was advised not to “directly confront men in meetings, because men perceive this as threatening.”

“Don’t be too aggressive or outspoken,” the attendee said she was told. “If you’re having a conversation with a man, cross your legs and sit at an angle to him. Don’t talk to a man face-to-face. Men see that as threatening.”

Apparently, men are very easily threatened. And aroused, at least to judge from this stern admonition: “Don’t flaunt your body — sexuality scrambles the mind (for men and women).”

Not incidentally, this seminar came just a month after Ernst & Young settled a complaint by a partner who said the firm failed to act when she reported being sexually assaulted by another partner. Whatever the company should have learned from that experience, it apparently didn’t. And somewhere, Don Draper is pouring himself a drink.

For the rest of us, this seminar — for which the company has expressed belated regret — offers an opportunity to ponder the assumption implicit in its very construction: namely, that women need to fix themselves in order to get ahead. But then, we often assign women responsibilities they do not deserve. Worse, they often shoulder them.

Think of the woman with the black eye and chipped tooth who says, “He didn’t mean to do it. I provoked him.” Or the sexual-assault survivor who is criticized because she wore a short skirt or drank too much. Or the presidential candidate who is rebuked for being “too ambitious” because, Lord knows, no male candidate has ever been guilty of wanting it badly.

Moreover, how often have you heard of a seminar to help men navigate the workplace? When has anyone felt a need to advise them how to approach female colleagues or avoid speaking in annoying tones? Rarely, if at all. And indeed, if the idea sounds silly to you, it’s because of another implicit assumption, best expressed by the philosopher James Brown: “This is a man’s world.” Which means it’s up to women to adjust themselves to fit in, not vice versa.

But see, this isn’t a “man’s world.” Or at least, it’s not supposed to be, not anymore. And if we mean that, if we’re serious about it, then we have to get over this idea that women must somehow “fix” themselves. If the #MeToo era has taught us nothing else, it’s taught us this:

They’re not the ones who need fixing.

— Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald.

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