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We need to talk about Kevin

Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts has been suspended over comments about gender in advertising. How could an ‘expert’ in the industry be so astonishingly lacking in insight, asks business and brand strategist Jane Cherrington.

We need to talk about Kevin.

Mr Roberts has caused quite a stir by suggesting that gender inequality is over, in his agency at least.

Since doing so he has been accused of a number of things, from unconscious bias, to arrogance and ignorance. Is he supremely egoistical, out of touch, or just misunderstood?

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I don’t know Kevin personally so I cannot say what drove the comments he made. But I am fascinated by the level of commentary around his remarks taking place in our industry. Yet, despite some very strong judgments on Kevin’s motives and words, it took days for the local press to find someone from within the industry who would comment about this publicly. I was clearly well down the line of people to be asked. It seems it’s not safe to have such opinions in public – a reminder in itself that our industry has certainly not left such politically charged issues behind. What makes commenting interesting and of worth is that, at its heart, this debate is about what we work on, values and culture.

Positioning Kevin’s remarks as unconscious bias, lack of awareness or, as one gentler commentator suggested – naivety – insulates him from responsibility. But, given Kevin’s role, that’s a problem. No “expert” in the advertising industry should be so lacking in insight. In the marketing world it’s an imperative to be up to date on trends and the contemporary human condition, to be able to deftly unpack the unconscious and open it up to engagement and behavioural manipulation. This is supposedly our stock-in-trade.

The bigger question behind the storm surrounding Kevin’s apparently thoughtless remarks is also the probable answer to his making them.

Why does gender inequity persist? Women have never been in a better position to take up senior leadership roles – in western communities at least. Huge cultural shifts have dramatically reworked traditional gender-role divisions since I was offered typing or French as my educational electives. Yet, as women, we are still less likely than men to be associated with leadership positions or on boards and stubborn inequality is consistently reflected in reported pay disparity. If our basic social and political frameworks are now designed to support equity in the workforce, then we need to look at what other factors contribute to a very persistent inequality.

The answer lies in what it is to be human. It is how we operate as a species. The idea of the rational being is a persistent myth in our culture. We are not terribly rational or aware of the drivers behind our choices most of the time. The mental models we hold shape how we behave, not logic. These models are internalised stories we have about the world. They are developed through life to shape our values, beliefs and actions, and act to reinforce dominant social models and hierarchies, including those of gender. “Don’t be such a girl.”

People who behave in ways that contrast with these traditional stereotypes – such as feisty career women, or less traditionally masculine men – are likely to be evaluated negatively by others. “She’s not very lady-like.”

Kevin Roberts speaks at the Global Competitiveness Forum in Saudi Arabia, 2012

Kevin Roberts speaks at the Global Competitiveness Forum in Saudi Arabia, 2012

These stories are not light things. They directly shape how we live. In many communities the price of non-conforming can be horrific. Endless research highlights how we all have learned biases of race, gender and culture. It is part of being human, the mental shorthand that makes living possible. Even when we like to think we think differently, the dirty old subconscious drags us back. Try the online prejudice tests for yourself at www.understandingprejudice.org – it’s necessarily leveling.

What we need to strongly challenge is the idea of unconscious bias. Our mental models are learned biases, not unconscious but subconscious – available if we care to look. When we properly recognise the process of how we become adult humans – of how culture evolves – we cannot abdicate responsibility for it.

As for the personal comments about Cindy Gallop, even if she was self-promoting, saying so in a public forum in this way is more than a little out of touch. In today’s climate of strong politics over gender issues, a callout like this will inevitably bring in a very heated response through social media.

Yes, many people view men as more capable leaders. And, for that matter, taller more conventionally handsome men are rewarded more highly than shorter less conventionally attractive men. And having a “normal” western name is more likely to get you a job interview. And on it goes. Interrogating our prevailing culture is critical to delivering changes in what is “normal”. Such interrogation ultimately drives history forward.

But progress is not steady or inevitable; look at Iran. Which is why women are very careful. We know all too well that hard won changes are not inevitably held and that the challenge is far from over. The normalising contexts in which we live set out the frameworks of possibility for our lives. In all our workplaces we can start by asking what is the culture here, what are the real values driving behaviours? We cannot assume we have the right view on this if we did not do the work of assessing the views of others.

In our industry it’s our job to know we need to do this work, because we know that brands, like workplaces, like communities, like countries, like people, are literally built out of values and culture. Overcoming the constraints and harms of dominant cultures and deeply structured forms of learned bias can only be achieved if we are all willing to find ways to recognise and address these things. When we can see them we can start to set practices and procedures to mitigate their effects – something anyone worth his or her salt in our world of brands and customer experience needs to actively cultivate.

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