Pancakes & Waffles & Junk Science

By now you have probably read about the female empowerment training turned PR nightmare for EY. The Huffington Post broke the story about a course delivered to senior women executives at the consultancy firm that featured juicy content such as “Women’s brains are 6% to 11% smaller than men’s” and “sexuality scrambles the brain”. There was even a cute analogy involving breakfast dishes: “Women’s brains 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.” As a Canadian, I am deeply offended our sacred elixir, maple syrup, was brought into this debacle.

Personally, I am not a fan of female-only events in the workplace. I believe we need more dialogue and problem solving together. Also, the last time I attended one of these I was advised by a chirpy facilitator to read the sports pages before work so I could contribute to conversations with “the men”. She was less friendly to me when I asked if “the men” were coached to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I should probably have a hazard sign on my backpack. Luckily I did not heed her words of wisdom and still happily work alongside many fantastic men (some who do not even watch sports!).

Twitterverse and LinkedIn were predictably lit up about the course. In this era, this is definitely not the type of exposure any company wants, especially when there is a war on talent. EY is going to have a tricky time attracting female leaders after this SNAFU. Many commenters were questioning how on earth this workshop ever saw the light of day, let alone became part of an executive programme for hi-po women. Call me cynical, but I was not surprised at all. 

Think about the millions of courses on soft skills such as leadership, coaching, empathy, listening. How many of these are even based in anything other than someone’s anecdotal experience they have managed to patchwork into a workshop? I am not dismissing the valuable wisdom of experience, but let’s face it, an awful lot of people refer to themselves as “CEO” on LinkedIn when they are in fact an independent consultant. Call yourself a guru to the right person and you can up your hourly rates by 20%.

Here’s the problem: as we move forward with automation, AI, robotics, and more, the skills innate only to humans will become paramount. I would personally argue this has always been the case, but anyway (take a moment to read some of Ed Monk’s thoughts on the topic). Our ability to incubate skills like learnability, adaptability, communication, will be key. Sadly, there is a lot of money to be made in soft skills and a lot “experts” come out of the woodwork.

The reason I was not surprised at the situation at EY is because I have seen it so many times before: a provider walks in with a slide of “facts” pandering to confirmation bias and a cheque is cut before the end of day. Myers-Briggs is a perfect example. It has been debunked so many times as astrology for the workplace, and yet thousands of companies still use it. Why? Because it seems scientific to slot people into 16 neat personality types.

In the case of EY, my guess is the vendor (publicly acknowledged as Marsha Clark & Associates) had a great sales pitch and topics such as women in leadership are easy pickings. Add this to the dozens of women giving rave reviews about the programme on LinkedIn, and it probably seemed fit for purpose to a decision maker. Sexist content aside, the whole premise of the course is not even based on fact or research. Her (now deleted) website made claims like, “Women ask more questions and therefore learn more when there are only women in the group”. Not surprising there was no citation for this bogus statement.

So how do you separate the slick but suspect content from ones who will deliver against performance outcomes. Here are a few tricks I have learned over the years:

  • Don’t fall for the logo parade. Yes, it is nice to know if a vendor is operating at a Fortune500 level, but dig a bit deeper. Did the company purchase or pilot? Did they send a handful of people to a session or actually implement? Look for the Head of Learning on LinkedIn and ask for their candid experience with the vendor.

  • Listen for junk science red flags. Do they refer to bogus claims like left & right brain learning, or learning styles? If yes, ghost immediately

  • Are their client testimonials purely level one feedback? Learner satisfaction is one thing, but what was the impact on performance? If there are no metrics they can share, be suspicious

  • Is their content rooted in respected and peer-reviewed methodology? Basically, you want to know if they just made a bunch of stuff up

  • Define what soft skills are for your organization. For example, leadership and coaching come up as a core gaps, but there are different styles. Research and experiment with what aligns with the culture your business aspires to

While this news story made for a lot of humour in the generally dry field of L&D, the end result should be vendor accountability for fact-based content*. Our responsibility is then to challenge too-good-to-be-true slide decks, and ensure precious time and money is invested in quality experiences with performance outcomes. Oh, and no more team building trust falls.

*etiquette note: please don’t hijack the comments to promote your curricula, gracias