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How did mega accounting firms morph into exemplars of corporate cool? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never found anything remotely sexy or edgy about accountants.

Somehow, though, the Big Four accounting firms gained reputations over the years as progressive institutions. I mean, you can’t go to one of those women or diversity conferences without some expert citing the Big Four as shining examples of what institutions like law firms should do to promote women and minorities. And of course, they’re always on those lists of “best” places to work for women and minorities.

Well, it turns out all that coolness is hype. The accounting firm Ernest & Young, now known by the snappy initials EY (sorry, but doesn’t that sound like a brand of personal lubricant?) got hit with a barrage of bad press after HuffPo’s Emily Peck wrote about its Power-Presence-Purpose program for female employees. Peck got her hands on the 55-page presentation on leadership and empowerment, which turned out not to be so empowering.

Why the fuss? Well, some of the advice was dated, if not straight-out sexist. HuffPo broke down some of the categories:

“Don’t Show Your Distracting Skin.”

“Don’t Be Aggressive Like Men.”

“Don’t Talk to Men Face-to-Face.”

Oh, by the way, the presentation also included tidbits about women’s brains and how they hold information. The audience was told that women’s brains are “6% to 11% smaller than men’s,” absorbing “information like pancakes soak up syrup.” While men’s brains operated like waffles, collecting information in little squares with greater focus. Got that?

As you can imagine, women were up in arms once this program became public. But before I join the let’s-dump-on-EY bandwagon—which is low-hanging fruit—may I say that I don’t find all of it totally offensive?

Take the caution about showing skin: Is it wrong to remind women that looking professional is the safer route? (Among the advice: “Be polished,” be sure to sport a “good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type.” Plus these warnings: “Don’t flaunt your body—sexuality scrambles the mind [for men and women].”)

I don’t think the advice is wrong per se, but it’s condescending, since women who work at EY presumably know the drill about looking professional. That said, may I be honest and say that some might need to be reminded? (How many times have I heard female partners complain about the overly casual attire of young female associates?)

As for the advice not to be aggressive with men: It’s definitely retro, yet arguably the way to play the game in a man’s world. (According to the woman who leaked the presentation details to HuffPo, “The message was that women will be penalized, by both men and women, if they don’t adhere to feminine characteristics or if they display more masculine traits. And that if you want to be successful, you have to keep this in mind.”)

Finally, the advice that women shouldn’t talk to men “face to face”—that was hilarious. Women were told not to confront men in meetings to avoid looking threatening—better “meet before (or after) the meeting.” Also, women should “cross their legs and sit at an angle” when speaking with men, again to avoid seeming threatening.

Those rules about not being threatening to men seem wildly antiquated. But then again, we keep hearing that the Mike Pence rule—never be alone with a woman, socially or at the office—is gaining traction, so what do I know? Perhaps men are really that scared of women.

Personally, I can’t get all riled up by the presentation because it seemed so inept and ridiculous—almost comical. (I’m still confused by the pancake/waffle analogy.) But what’s a bit shocking is that a big, sophisticated company like EY would shell out money for such nonsense. (The presentation was by a women empowerment expert named Marsha Clark—not to be confused with the Marcia Clark that we know and love.)

Even more outrageous is that women put up with this kind of thing. EY told HuffPo that the 150 female attendees gave the seminar high marks. I don’t know if the women genuinely thought it was worthwhile or was just touting the company line. Or are women this desperate for any morsel of wisdom?

But one thing is clear: Like a lot of “empowerment” programs for women, this one was largely hollow and ultimately useless.

Told ya, accounting firms aren’t cool.

 

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.