By Neil Patrick
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If there’s one thing that is guaranteed to get business leaders into trouble these days, it's trying to deny a problem exists when all the evidence points to the contrary. Whitewashing the truth might be the essence of what advertising companies do, but in an age where media is more democratic than ever before, it's also dangerous and potentially career terminating.
And one group of people are especially vulnerable to this; people stereotyped as ‘old white guys’. I am sensitive to this because I am more or less one myself and it dismays me when I see my demographic peers damaging our increasingly fragile standing in the world.
Last week, via an interview on Business Insider, an old white guy who ought to know better, Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, Kevin Roberts got into a spat about his views about women’s careers in advertising and for expressing his opinion that the issue of gender was “done and over.”
He was confronted by Business Insider with the challenge that the advertising industry is sexist because not a single CEO of the six largest advertising agencies in the world is female.
You'd expect that a man at the head of a large global business whose very nature revolves around communication, persuasion and sophisticated messages, would produce an elegant, visionary and inclusive response.
But he didn't.
Having spent about 20 years of my career working almost daily with advertising firms, I've observed at close quarters that the advertising industry is sexist for many reasons, not just its attitudes to the women it employs.
Moreover, its ‘creative’ output for clients is often ageist, elitist, patronizing and worst of all, frequently devoid of any sort of moral compass. Changes to the law have been necessary to stop tobacco advertising and control advertising to children. Basically, provided your business isn’t illegal, almost any advertising company will gladly take (a lot of) your money and spend some of it to promote and lavishly entertain you whilst pocketing the rest.
Commenting on Roberts' fall from grace, CEO of 20-first, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox pointed out in her Harvard Business Review post that:
“Roberts’s kind of willful blindness (in Margaret Heffernan’s wonderful phrase) is widespread. Those who explain the dominance of men in leadership by citing women’s “personal choices,” which of course they respect and have no wish to influence. Others who make a fuss of visibly promoting alpha females (usually without kids) to prove their gender neutrality, while alienating the next generation of women. Those who proudly say they hire the best candidate regardless of gender, without ever considering that their definition of “best” might be rigidly male.”
This blindness and denial is not only unconscionable, it's harmful to business effectiveness. Avivah goes on to say:
“That’s where many managers still are, mostly unconsciously. Denying differences. Some, like Roberts, use the differences to rationalize the gender gap. But without understanding all the issues that affect, influence, and irritate women, it’s pretty hard to create gender-balanced workplaces or to connect with female consumers sustainably.”
“Rather than ignoring gender issues, it’s increasingly important for 21st–century leaders to understand them — deeply. When you can speak to both men and women, without alienating either, that’s “gender bilingualism.” It has nothing to do with Men Are from Mars–esque stereotypes, and everything to do with embracing gender differences along a whole range of masculine and feminine career cycles, communication styles, and differing attitudes to power. And in the world Roberts describes, “a world where we need, like we’ve never needed before, integration, collaboration, connectivity, and creativity,” gender bilingualism is increasingly a leadership skill.”
This is the first reason that Roberts got it so wrong. He didn't just suggest it is not an issue, he clearly stated that the problem is solved, because he believes that women who think and behave just like the worst kind of stereotypical old white men, are doing just fine in the advertising industry.
Mainstream and social media were quick to cotton on to Roberts’ expressed views in the interview and he was promptly suspended pending internal disciplinary processes. He resigned on 3rd August.
Advertising agency creative work is collaborative, fast paced and can be great fun. Agency leadership roles managing business and people usually isn’t. But this is hardly solid grounds to conclude that no women really want to make this transition.
Historically, the principal measures of career success have been rank and pay. The default generalisation is the higher we climb on these particular ladders, the more successful we are assumed to be. And the more fulfilled and happy too.
But this is a way too simplistic view. Reality is different. It is nuanced and often it is entirely the contrary. I know a lot of other old white guys who hold senior positions and would gladly give them up if they knew how to survive without them. They are tired, disgruntled, cynical and burned out. They have little or no fun at all in their work. They’d gladly hand their jobs over to another man, woman or hermaphrodite if they were given half a chance.
This disengagement is because too many organisations have retained cultures which place a premium on Alpha-male competitiveness. Cultures where only lip service is paid to collaboration and inclusivity. Cultures where there is tokenism. Cultures where a winner takes all mentality prevails.
Why do we continue to define success simply in terms of positions on an org chart and pay scale? The millennials have it right. Success is about doing the things at work from which we derive most satisfaction. Whatever those things are and whatever gender we are. But implicit in Robert's comments is that connectivity, collaboration and gender appreciation might be useful for his staff but are not terribly valuable characteristics for industry leaders. It reflects an old world view, not the reality of 21st century business leadership.
“So we are trying to impose our antiquated shit on them, and they are going: ‘actually guys, you’re missing the point, you don’t understand: I’m way happier than you.’ Their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy. So they say: ‘We are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men judge yourself by’. I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they are very happy, they’re very successful, and doing great work.”
And this is where Roberts committed hara-kiri; he asserted that there is no problem, because women are choosing to work to different definitions of success. Not that these definitions are essential to everyone at all levels of the organisation.
The thing that astonished and disappointed me most though was that a man who is (was) at the very top of a huge global business which specializes in media and communications somehow thought that he could express these opinions and not get killed for it. He more than most people should understand how the media, his peers and the public would be likely to react to any statement of denial on this topic.
It seems to me that the real issue for organisations in the 21st century isn’t how to make organisations blind to gender, measuring 'equality' using old world metrics of pay and seniority; it is how to harness and fulfill the unique talents and aspirations of all employees regardless of age, gender or race. And to recognize that leadership teams exclusively reserved for alpha men are at a serious competitive disadvantage in the digital age.
But then I’m an old white guy, so what do I know?