By Manus Lenihan
On 27 October at around 11:30, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) Dublin branch Senior Associate David McDonough sent an email to six colleagues and acquaintances in four major property, finance and accountancy companies.
It read: “FYI. New Clunge.” The emails sent around by PwC senior male staff in response discussed a “shortlist for the top ten” most attractive new female interns. Other comments were added to the forwarded email, including: “Great work …. have reservations about the last one getting in”.
The correspondence circulated far beyond their intended readers, going viral and making headlines across the world. This message became a source of great confusion to many readers in America who were not familiar with the term. An ABC news reporter had to clarify for her readers that “‘clunge’ is a British slang word for female genitalia.”
PwC attempted to keep the women, who were part of a graduate programme with PwC, away from the media. They were allowed to leave the office through an underground car park, but several Irish newspapers published the names and photographs of the 13 women on their front pages.
While PwC has strict policies against bullying and harassment, and swiftly suspended the 17 men involved in order to head off criticism, the email has brought back to public attention an incident at their Australian branch in March 2008.
Christina Rich, a financial adviser, won the equivalent of €2.4 million from the company for over a decade of sexual harassment and misogynistic behaviour in the company.
Rich was the highest-paid PwC partner in Australia, earning €470,000 a year. She was a rarity, as 80 percent of PwC’s management is male.
It is possible that, apart from incidents like this latest scandal, there is sexism in the company that goes unreported, as women not as highly-placed in the company may be less confident in bringing it to court.
One of the women “rated” was discovered to be the sister of a man who was sacked from Merrill Lynch in a similarly sleazy and email-related scandal four years ago. Many have said that this conveys an idea of the level of sexist culture in such male-dominated companies.
Ireland’s Equality Authority dealt with only three cases of sexual harassment in 2009, despite a much higher anecdotal level of sexism in workplaces.
It argues that women who are new in jobs or in a minority in their workplace tend to “be good sports” and to laugh along with sexist remarks and jokes. To complain or to defy the prevailing culture is to risk losing a job or making working relationships unbearable.