As Saatchi’s agency chairman Kevin Roberts was “put on leave” this weekend over his remarks in an interview with Business Insider on female ambition which did not “value the importance of inclusion”, I wonder if I’m the only woman feeling slightly uneasy at Roberts’ turbo-banishment?
Hoiking men from public life at a moment’s notice for being unable to give completely 100 per cent satisfactory answers on head-bangingly complex gender issues does not, I fear, help women’s road to equality. It makes us look like a sinister, peculiarly thin-skinned, laughably volatile Lidl-brand Stazi.
Roberts' heinous crime, it seems, was to attempt to explain the advertising world’s lack of females in the highest positions. There are certainly some female ad bigwigs, Roberts said, but there could be more. Some of the top ones are a bit trouble-makey, he said. So far, so bland. Roberts then said the debate about gender bias was, in his opinion, “all over”. To me this is questionable and a tad “Well he would say that wouldn’t he?”, but not earth-shattering.
Foolhardily Roberts then skidded off-road into "Tim Hunt abandon-ye-career here" territory by saying that at Saatchi &Saatchi he’d met a number of talented women who "reach a certain point in their careers" and rejected the chance to become creative directors. "They are going ‘actually guys, you're missing the point, you don't understand: I'm way happier than you,’" he explained. "Their ambition is not a vertical ambition; it's this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy."
We do not know any more of Roberts’ thoughts as he was quickly escorted to "Shamed Man Gulag #231", policed by a number of perma-furious turquoise-haired fourth-wave feminists. Each morning since Roberts has been tied to a rickety stool and forced to listen to angsty third studio album by Canadian songstress Alanis Morrisette, Jagged Little Pill, before an arduous afternoon of Elaine Showalter seminars and olive-branch meetings with yowling nerve-jangled women who read Roberts thoughts and can never hope to recover.
Ok, this is not true. Roberts is at home, possibly wondering how his glittering 40-year career path starting as a lad from Lancaster who became a brand manager for Mary Quant, covering a vast array of marketing and advertising lead roles, is now potentially scuppered by a few comments that are partially true. Women do very often settle for a different sort of happiness.
I’ve known dozens of brilliant women who had babies, reduced their hours and did not become magazine publishers, legal partners, board-members or channel controllers, but focused instead on a happy family life. Roberts thoughts are not wholly inaccurate. Are they depressing? Slightly. Are they evidence of the enormous double-bind that says yes, women may have pierced the glass ceiling, but we are still, regardless of evolution, only temporarily fertile? Definitely.
I find it ironic that it is women, not men, who propel the cult of motherhood and who the spread the frightening notion that life will never, ever be truly complete without a baby, and that no career plaudit can compare. Then, as women fall like dominoes after their mid-twenties, quitting the race to the top in droves, regurgitating this same self-placating idea that "smiles on little faces" make up for power, prestige and big bucks, we want Kevin Roberts fired for cheerfully agreeing with us.
“They want a circular type of happiness,” Kevin Roberts said, in hindsight haplessly. He possibly believed that the brilliant and purportedly happy women he’d met over 40 years who recoiled from high-level corporate slog as they, perfectly reasonably, wanted to put their own babies to bed each night were telling the truth.
At this point, someone usually rushes in saying crèches are the key. Crèches everywhere. Ball-ponds by the whiteboard. The whiff of Napisan heavy in the "breakout ideas" booths. Litter the boardroom with Lego and give all genders December off to attend nativity plays. That’ll solve things. But, I feel it’s more complex than that.
Maintaining the top position in almost all corporate and artistic fields requires 18 hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week unyielding focus. It requires boring dinners, foreign business travel, legal wrangles, endless hiring and firing. It requires going to work and everyone disliking you, but then fretting all night that their livelihoods and children’s potential empty bellies depend on you.
Your own child or ageing mother will be way down on your list of priorities. For decades men have grabbed this poisoned chalice. It has made them happy. If women want to equal men in top roles, they must change their notion of "happiness" too.
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