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Stop saying dumb shit, and other top tips for all the Kevins of the world

With a bit of luck, the response to Saatchi guru Kevin Roberts’ brain-fart suggests off-the-cuff bullshit about women in business won’t be tolerated so easily any more, writes Michele A’Court

On Saturday, Business Insider (Australia) published an interview with Kevin Roberts, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Executive Chairman and Head Coach at the advertising agency’s parent company, Publicis Groupe, about women in leadership.

In a nutshell, Roberts asserted that “the gender diversity in advertising” debate was over, and that women who argue that gender discrimination is a problem are “making stuff up” in order to “create a profile, and to take applause”. His explanation for the fact that women make up 46.4 per cent of the advertising industry but only 11.5% of its creative directors is that women “lack vertical ambition” and he doesn’t spend “any time” on supposed gender issues at his agencies at all.

Shortly afterwards, Publicis Groupe Chairman & CEO, Maurice Lévy, released an internal statement to employees saying Roberts had been asked to take a leave of absence. A couple of days later, Roberts announced he was bringing forward his retirement from May 2017 to early next month.

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I doubt very much this is the way he wanted to go out. A part of me always feels sad when someone who is used to success ends a career on a bum note. Sure, not everything he did was golden (some of the shockers are mentioned here) but there’s a special ignominy in farting just as you take your final bow – that’s all the audience is going to remember, no matter how fabulous the performance was before it.

Plus, I have reservations about people losing their jobs over one particular – albeit spectacular – brain-fart. Serial offenders, sure (I’m looking at a couple of radio and television presenters here) but sometimes I wonder if we’d be better to keep someone like Kevin around and just carry on with a robust discussion. I like a chat.

But if I was the kind of person who kept a record of these things, I might mark this week as a moment when something shifted. A sign that at least some of the off-the-cuff bullshit about women in business wasn’t going to be tolerated quite so easily any more.

I’d like to be right about that. What I’d also like is to talk to Kevin – and all the other Kevins in positions of influence – about some of the things that keep me awake at night. So I’ve written Kevin a letter.

Dear Kevin

This Monday, somewhere in among dropping my granddaughter at daycare and my daughter at the bus stop before hunkering down to write a newspaper column followed by a meeting with a client and ordering flowers for a friend’s 50th and scripting an event for this coming weekend before scooting out to the AGM of the Guild I used to be president of, then heading home via the supermarket to cook a late dinner, I heard you – Kevin Roberts, Worldwide CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi – talking about what women want.

“Go on, Kev,” I thought (forgive me – this is before I read you prefer to be known as KR), “You tell me, because I think us ladies have an inkling that things aren’t quite as they should be but I’ve got fuck-all time to articulate that today, what with this brief break in the rain which suggests I should squeeze in a moment to put a load of washing out before I email that spreadsheet to my accountant for the June/July GST return.”

I am providing you with this context, KR, not because I’m whiny and want you to pull out the world’s smallest violin, but because I want you to know what my day looks like. It looks like a lot of other women’s days – some professional and creative satisfaction, some tedious bullshit, a bit of frustration and the odd glorious moment. Oh, and flashes of guilt for the work that doesn’t get done because of the family responsibilities, and the family stuff I don’t do well enough because of the work. You know how it goes, right? “Can I have a career, and a family?” We all struggle with that one, hey?

Anyway, the reason I’m writing is because – forgive me – I spent a fair bit of Monday wanting to punch you in the face. It was that phrase you used in the Business Insider interview about how women “lack vertical ambition”. It wasn’t just because “vertical ambition” sounded like a pet-name a dude might have for his dude. Though, OK, a little bit. “This is my Vertical Ambition … Touch it.”

Not just that phrase. The whole quote about how you have all these “talented, creative females” but they reach a certain point in their careers – about 10 years in, you said – when you’re ready to put them into leadership positions but they turn around and say they don’t want it. They’d rather stay where they are. And you can’t figure out why.

Later in the interview, you say you think it’s because they don’t want to lead, their ambition is “to be happy”. Leadership just isn’t their thang; ergo, no big deal about close to 90 per cent of your creative directors being men.

I reckon I might be able to throw a bit of light on this. I actually think you do get it – you come close to it when you have an imaginary woman say to you: ‘We are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men judge yourself by.” Yes, maybe they don’t want to be a leader like you. But – ponder this, Kevin – they might still want to be leaders. You might need to let go of the idea that women have to be like you to succeed. Maybe we should find out what that looks like.

Kevin Roberts, 2008 (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Kevin Roberts, 2008 (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Because crikey, if women in the advertising industry – any industry – genuinely don’t give two hoots about getting to the top, why are they holding conferences and spending so much energy on addressing these issues and lobbying for change? That should be a clue, right? They could be at home rediscovering nana-handcrafts and being lady-happy. But no, I think they’re making it pretty clear.

Let’s talk about that 10 year thing. That’s not some weird lady use-by-date. They’re fucking tired, Kevin. Of juggling the obvious and dealing with the usual. I’ll make you a list.

We need to stop pretending half the workforce doesn’t step out now and then to create a new worker – or “a baby” as it is commonly known – and ensure that we have accessible, affordable childcare that matches actual working hours. Let’s also get creative about our working hours and make them flexible, so the work gets done but it fits around family needs. Most women have babies at some point; most people have families. We’d be doing something great for all of us.

Let’s also get better at planning. None of that “suddenly needing you to work late” or “finish this over the weekend” and giving someone side-eye because, unlike Brian, she doesn’t have a wife to pick up the slack at home. And speaking of home, let’s all make a serious effort to share the domestic stuff. You know what I’m saying.

Try being consciously aware of listening to women. Like, actually. Stop only thinking it’s a good idea when a man says it. Get over your perception that women talk all the time when in fact they talk far less than men do. There have been studies. And stop criticising their voices – the “vocal fry” complaints when they lower their tone, for example, or the words they use. And don’t tell her she’s being “emotional” like it’s a bad thing. We’re evolving as a species. Let’s try emotional and see where that gets us. At the very least, when you’re in a meeting, try making eye contact with someone who is not a man. And don’t interrupt her.

Bear in mind that women don’t get to move around the world with the same freedom that you do. Late nights, empty carparks, travelling solo – they present different challenges from the ones you deal with. And let’s all stop talking about how she dresses. You guys have nailed it with the shirt/trouser/jacket thing. Well done, you. Just shut up while we do something more interesting. It honestly isn’t about you.

And when women get together to support each other’s ambition for success and achievement, don’t say dumb shit like, “Ooh! Where’s the men’s meeting?” You know where it is. You’re standing in it.

And why should you want to do all this? Because, just like you said, there are all these “talented, creative females” who spend a decade absorbing all that institutional knowledge, getting all that experience, who could go further and do more. And, let’s be honest, you’re tired of shouldering it all. And you drink too much and work too hard and miss out on the kids growing up and get depressed and have heart attacks and die earlier. Or you end up saying stupid things in interviews near the end of your career, and all anyone will say when they hear your name is, “Kevin?  Wasn’t he that guy who said women can’t be leaders?” and it won’t be an entirely accurate encapsulation of what you said but still, it’ll be what they say.

And that’s a tragedy, too.

Yours sincerely,

Michele

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