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Why women don’t need secret business rules from men

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Leading finance company Ernst & Young has released an infographic detailing the “seven secret business rules men don’t share with women.”

According to its author Maria Pinelli – the firm’s Global Vice Chair of Strategic Growth Markets – male entrepreneurs have “unwritten codes of business conduct” that give them the edge.

Anyone who has even a vague grasp of current affairs will know women are woefully unrepresented when it comes to leadership in the workplace. We're constantly being hit over the head with a depressing chain mail of figures on the topic: just 6.1% of women occupy FTSE 100 executive positions, with a tiny 3% on board chairs, even though we represent 42% of the UK’s workforce. If you want to get really angry, consider that women earn on average £140,000 less than men over the course of our careers.

Clearly it’s time for action. Ernst & Young's attempt to tackle the problem is well-meant and part of a laudable wider programme the company runs to promote female leadership.

But its approach is the equivalent of randomly stabbing at your computer when it freezes, rather than taking a step back back and coolly assessing the whys and wherefores of the situation.

First off, to attribute men’s business success to an arsenal of “secret business rules” – brandished like some elusive and alluring scent – is to completely ignore the myriad of subtle sexisms that hamper many women’s path to the top.

A 2009 study by the Fawcett Society found that 51% of women and men from middle management to director level identify stereotyping as the major hurdle facing women at work. The same organisation found that each year an estimated 440,000 women lose out on pay or promotion as a result of pregnancy. And that’s not even including anecdotal evidence of sexual discrimination at work that is relayed on the web each and every day and that can be unearthed via one quick Google search.

According to Ernst & Young’s infographic, this discrimination doesn’t exist. In fact, the diagram actually reinforces gender bias by implying that women aren’t getting ahead because they’re not channelling their bigger, better, downright sexier brothers.

The Ernst & Young infographic

And that's not even taking into account the detail of the infographic's rules, some of which paint an unlikely picture of women in work.

According to its information, we’re pretty small-minded creatures. “While men can be more forgiving,” reads rule number three (Say Thank You), “forget to say thank you to a female business contact and you won’t get another referral.”

We don’t have the exact stats on the number of worldwide business deals that have fallen through because someone forgot to say thank you or didn’t hold the door on the way out – but clearly, it’s a more pressing matter than we imagined. Men shrug off a thank you; but don’t mind your manners in front of women and frankly, that relationship is TOAST.

Another trait that apparently marks us down in the big, bad world of business is our ability to get distracted.

“Think facts, not feelings,” rule number seven, Answer the Question, tells us. “Don’t get distracted and wander off topic.”

Added to this is rule number six, a somewhat patronizing dig to "know your numbers."

The infographic is part of a broader initiative Ernst & Young is heading up, the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women, to encourage female leadership - an effort that we applaud and wish more businesses would adhere to.

There’s no doubt the company's heart is in the right place, but the entire premise of its advocacy is off.

There are many reasons why women don’t get the top jobs in business.

Recent research actually suggests we are actively turning down top positions because we’re not interested in the personal sacrifices and compromises female leaders are perceived to make.

Linked to this is the whole issue of working hours, childcare and negotiating maternity leave. And then there’s sexism; casual, unsaid and always at play.

Ernst & Young’s infographic glibly ignores this huge and complex multitude of factors that bubble beneath women’s achievement at work. To try and combat the dearth of female business leaders by suggesting that we emanate our male colleagues is short-sighted and counter-productive.

Women don’t need to be like men in the workplace; we bring with us our own skill sets.

Any number of studies will show you how our aptitude for nurturing relationships, networking and multi-tasking helps us get ahead. Not forgetting that the total sum of our talents comes down to us as individuals, as well as our gender.

So it’s time to stop with the stereotyping and instead focus on the real reasons why women aren’t getting to the top.

The findings might not be simple enough to be contained in an infographic but it’s surely the only way of breaking this particularly stubborn glass ceiling.

What do you think? Do women need to draw on men's approach to leadership to get ahead? What more can be done to combat low levels of female leadership in business? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments below

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features

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