Hey Merrill Lynch, It's Not a Good Idea to Tell Women to 'Seduce the Boys' Club'

Photograph by Andy Sotiriou/Getty Images

So it turns out that women don’t like it when their bosses give them a book that suggests they flirt their way to top.

I know, I know. This is probably a groundbreaking revelation for most of you. It definitely was for Merrill Lynch in 2010, when three former financial advisers sued the company for gender discrimination at work. They lost. But according to the New York Post, they are suing again.

In the original lawsuit, one woman claimed she was told to “stick to her knitting” instead of trying to land a potential client. Another had to answer a branch manager’s telephone and, when she asked why male financial advisers didn’t have to do this, says she was told her manager wanted only “girls” to answer his phone. Later she was reprimanded for not being “perky enough.” Apparently seething with rage doesn’t count as perky.

In addition to these anecdotal slights, all three women were also given copies of Seducing the Boys Club, a career-advice-for-women book that recommended flirting, flattery, “playing on [a man's] masculine pride and natural instincts to protect the weaker sex” and reinforcing “his hunk status.” Ah, yes. That famous Merrill Lynch hunk status.

This is all sexist, right? Totally. But here’s the thing: The women claimed they were let go of because of their gender, which is really hard to prove when you were laid off in January 2009, along with a bunch of men, as part of general downsizing during the recession. Ultimately, the court decided that the discrimination they experienced wasn’t “sufficiently deep or pervasive” enough to be a direct cause of their termination. “Put differently,” the court wrote in its decision, “the Seducing the Boys Club event, although validly assailed as inappropriate, does not call into question the neutrality of the decision to terminate [the women].”

This might be reasonable. At the same time, it highlights the fact that discrimination lawsuits can be very difficult to win. Just ask the women who sued Virginia Tech in 2008 for pay discrimination. One claimed she was directly told that she wouldn’t make as much as her male predecessor because “you are a woman and you are not the head of your household.” A jury found in favor of the women, but a judge set aside the verdict and found in favor of Virginia Tech. Nearly five years after the lawsuit originated, the women won on appeal, but only on a technicality. They weren’t victims of pay discrimination, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said, but of improper retaliation when they complained.

That means everything else they experienced was, in a way, permitted. As was the Seducing the Boys Club author meet-and-greet the Merrill Lynch employees were forced to attend, where they were allegedly told to “stroke men’s egos” to be successful. And then there was the discrimination faced by a dental hygienist recently, when the Iowa Supreme Court decided that she could be fired for being too attractive. It’s sexist, Iowa’s court seemed to be saying, just not sexist enough. Wait until you get groped by a San Diego mayor, and then we’ll talk.

There is a simple solution to all this, of course. Stop groping people you work with. Pay everyone fairly. And don’t give anyone an advice book that instructs them to tell co-workers, “I don’t know why I’m so crazy about you when you act like such a prick.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.