A Tale Of Two Ernst & Youngs: Workplace Culture Debated After #MeToo Until recently, the accounting giant coached some top women leaders to look "polished" and speak briefly. The company has since disavowed the program, arguing its workplace culture promotes women.
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Post-#MeToo, Ernst & Young Grapples With Diverging Views Of Its Culture

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Post-#MeToo, Ernst & Young Grapples With Diverging Views Of Its Culture

Post-#MeToo, Ernst & Young Grapples With Diverging Views Of Its Culture

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There is a culture war playing out at Ernst & Young, one of the world's largest accounting firms. It has over a quarter of a million employees. The company faces backlash over a training program that, among other things, coached female executives to avoid plunging necklines. It raises questions about whether and how much has changed with the #MeToo movement, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports. And we should note - there is language that some listeners may find offensive.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: In the wake of #MeToo, Ernst & Young made a number of changes aimed at improving its culture, especially for women. It tapped a woman, Kelly Grier, as its top U.S. executive. It created a team to investigate employee complaints. It required reporting of romantic relationships at work. Even before that, the accounting giant was held up as a model for workplace culture. Both Fortune and Working Mother magazines this year named it a top place to work for women. At a presentation in March, Grier said...

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KELLY GRIER: So much of what we stand for is about our culture. It is about our values.

NOGUCHI: But for years - and even at the height of the #MeToo movement - Ernst & Young sponsored a leadership training program for its female executives that promoted outdated sexist views. Top women executives were told to manicure their nails and wear flattering attire. Affection and cheerfulness are feminine traits, they were told, where ambition and assertiveness are masculine. The curriculum, which was leaked to The Huffington Post, described men's brains as better at focusing.

There was public outcry. The company canceled the program. But in her initial response, Grier, the company's U.S. chairman, appeared to also defend the training. Grier originally sent a video statement to employees attacking stories critical of the training as clickbait. She added women actually liked the program.

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GRIER: What we heard from them was that they found it to be very meaningful to them personally.

NOGUCHI: Later, Grier's defensive statements were cut out of her statement to employees, leaving only the part where she disavowed the training.

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GRIER: Not only is it inconsistent with our values and my personal values but it is wholly in conflict with my own experience as a woman in the firm.

NOGUCHI: But Karen Ward argues the controversial training is, in fact, illustrative of Ernst & Young's problem. She wrote an open letter to the company, arguing that it underscores the culture she describes in her ongoing legal case.

KAREN WARD: The training is entirely consistent with my own experience as a female executive.

NOGUCHI: Ward is one of two female partners who filed legal claims against Ernst & Young last year for sexual harassment and retaliation. Ward says she brought in millions in client business and even won an award in 2015 for her performance. However...

WARD: The culture at EY has really tried to crush me. It's been crushing to my spirit. It's caused me tremendous anxiety.

NOGUCHI: She describes the culture as a frat house environment.

WARD: My direct boss talking about my nice ass, my great, big round boobs. And I was told that my leading was being perceived as b****y.

NOGUCHI: After she repeatedly complained, Ward says she was transferred first to a small division, then out of meetings and deals, and finally terminated.

NPR reached out to Ernst & Young, and officials there say they investigated Ward's claims. They say Ward was fired not as retaliation, but because her business unit lost money. The company says it is aggressively defending itself against her claims.

But Ward argues that her firing and the company's response to her voicing complaints show how Ernst & Young silences women. She says it's the same environment that allowed the sexist training to go on for years, a program that advised women not to show too much skin because sexuality, quote, "scrambles the mind."

She says she's spoken to many women still working at Ernst & Young who fear retribution, like her, if they come forward.

WARD: I was hopeful for change. I still am hopeful for change. I want to be part of that change.

NOGUCHI: Ward says she hopes in the future people will feel safer reporting sexual harassment. Ernst & Young says the company does not tolerate harassment or discrimination and already encourages employees to report it.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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