Open Letter: What Happens to Women Who Refuse to be “Soft-Spoken” at EY

Karen Ward
Oct 24 · 5 min read
Credit: Dr. Avishai Teicher/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Note: On Thursday, October 24, 2019 I sent the following Open Letter to Ernst & Young (“EY”) U.S. Chair and Managing Partner, Kelly Grier.

As you may know, I am a former Partner at Ernst & Young (“EY”) who is currently suing the firm for sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation. During your video message regarding the Power-Presence-Purpose (“PPP”) presentation yesterday, you described the offensive and objectionable content that was delivered to 30 female executives at EY’s offices in New Jersey in 2018 as “wholly in conflict with [your] own experience as a woman in the firm.” While I cannot speak to your experience as a female leader at EY, I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight: the sexist values portrayed in the PPP presentation are entirely consistent with my own experience as a female executive at EY.

As the only female Partner out of 19 partners in my group in Transaction Real Estate, I was unfortunately not surprised to learn of the appalling and outdated PPP training. It is incredibly telling that just two months before I was fired, female employees were trained to look “healthy and fit,” and to wear “well-cut attire that complements [their] body type” if they wanted to succeed at the firm and in the business sector. As a woman who has been named to the Fortune Most Powerful Women in Business list for two consecutive years, it should be more than “deeply troubling” to you that women at EY were told that typical feminine traits included “Childlike,” “Flatterable,” “Gullible,” “Loves Children,” “Soft-Spoken,” “Shy” and “Yielding,” whereas masculine characteristics included “Acts as a Leader,” “Aggressive,” “Ambitious,” “Assertive,” “Analytical,” “Competitive,” “Defends One’s Beliefs,” “Has Leadership Abilities” and “Willing to Take a Stand.” Even worse, women were told that their brains were smaller than men’s brains, and were instructed not to “directly confront men in meetings” and not to be “too aggressive or outspoken.” As you yourself noted in your video message yesterday, had you heeded those aspects of the program, you “would not be sitting here today as U.S. chair.”

Although I myself was never subjected to this disturbing program, I experienced the misogynism and sex-stereotyping evoked in this presentation day-in and day-out at EY. In fact, I literally had to walk over a putting green strip and under a basketball hoop when I entered the frat-house environment that paraded as an office every morning. When I wasn’t being objectified and harassed by my supervisor, I was being excluded and silenced by male colleagues who had formed a “boys’ club” in my industry. I complained about this discrimination incessantly and took my complaints up the chain of command. I first complained to my supervisor’s boss about the routine sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct my supervisor would subject me too — i.e., telling me I looked “really hot”; telling me that he loved my “great big round boobs”; telling me that I have “a nice ass”; insisting that I go to dinner and drinks with him; and texting me at 2:00 am to meet him for drinks in a hotel bar. When this predatory supervisor was finally fired (not in response to my complaints, by the way) his colleagues and friends blamed me, saying that I “had gotten [their] guy fired.” After that, in retaliation for my complaints, I was moved to a different group where I was again the only woman Partner and was intentionally isolated from my colleagues. I was disinvited to meetings, received zero referrals from my coworkers and was told to stop complaining because I would not want to be “perceived as bitchy.” I was repeatedly advised to “lighten up, get along and don’t ruffle any feathers,” that I was being “too hard” on my male colleagues and that I should instead focus on “winning over” the men in the boys’ club.

In light of EY’s apparent view that women are typically “soft-spoken” and should not be “too aggressive or outspoken,” it is clear that my continuous complaints and refusal to be silenced further antagonized EY leadership against me. Eventually, of course, EY grew tired of my determined attitude and persistence in taking a stand against the sexist environment I was facing and I was abruptly let go after playing a key role in closing a deal that brought $5 million dollars in fees to EY. I was informed of this decision in August 2018, just two months after the PPP presentation was given to female executives at EY.

Ms. Grier, you said in your video message that EY “celebrates differences and authenticity and encourages bold leadership and a culture of belonging.” I, unfortunately, was subjected to a culture of exclusion. To add insult to injury, I have been forced by EY to litigate my claims against the firm in secret arbitration proceedings that are not publicly accessible. EY denied my request to be released from my forced arbitration agreement. Then, EY fought against my request that EY pay the costs of the very same arbitration it forced me into. Now I have been billed $185,000 simply to have the “right” to have my claims “heard” in what most-everyone recognizes is a forum that is biased against employees and victims of sexual harassment.[1]

Continuing to try to force me to arbitrate my claims and pay for the “privilege” to do so is simply indicative of the fact that EY has not changed its culture since the 2018 PPP presentation. Indeed, forced arbitration is simply a means of keeping women quiet and submissive, in the same way that women at EY were advised to be “soft-spoken” in the PPP training. As Microsoft explained when it eliminated forced arbitration for sexual harassment victims: “The silencing of people’s voices has clearly had an impact in perpetuating sexual harassment.” That is what EY has done and continues to do.

Ms. Grier, I would like to have the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with you about my experiences at EY, my case in general and the issue of forced arbitration. I would ask that you let my counsel know if you are willing to take me up on this offer.

[1] See https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/02/business/dealbook/in-arbitration-a-privatization-of-the-justice-system.html (the “rules tend to favor businesses, and judges and juries have been replaced by arbitrators who commonly consider the companies their clients”).

Written by

Former Head of U.S. Real Estate Investment Banking at Ernst & Young challenging EY’s use of forced arbitration. Wharton MBA ’99; Stanford BA ’92.

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