Kevin Roberts, the executive chairman of global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi has been put on leave after declaring in an interview last week that his female employees lacked “vertical ambition”. The executive explained that he thought many of his women employees turned down senior roles because their ambitions were “circular” not “vertical”, and they wanted to do a good job more than they wanted to get to the top. He went on to add that the debate about gender bias was “all over”.
Shortly after the release of these comments, the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi’s parent company Publicis Groupe swiftly disowned the remarks: “Promoting gender equality starts at the top and the group will not tolerate anyone speaking for our organisation who does not value the importance of inclusion.” The Group also stressed that an internal statement was addressed to all employees to reiterate their no-tolerance policy towards behavior or commentary counter to its corporate spirit and celebration of difference.
Industry veteran (former president of international ad agency BHH) and women leadership advocate Cindy Gallop, however, said Roberts was merely expressing views that people at the top of the industry (in the United States) privately hold. The fact is that the six largest advertising firms in the world are currently all led by men. A 2016 study published by the 3% Movement, an initiative advocating for female talent and leadership in the advertising industry, showed that in the United States, only 11% of Creative Directors are female while women actually account for 46.7% of the industry. Looking beyond the advertising industry, only 4.6% of the largest 1000 US companies have female CEO’s in 2015.
A benchmarking study conducted by Community Business in 2014 looked at the gender diversity data at different levels of 30 multinational companies across six markets (China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore) in Asia. The findings demonstrate a huge issue when it comes to retaining female talent at the top level.
In reality, many women indeed want to reach the very top in their career (a 2014 McKinsey study aptly proves this). Even if female staff have less incentive to take on more senior roles than their male counterparts, companies should review their diversity and family friendly practices before making such an assumption. Gender roles in society certainly play a role, but if women received the same support to manage their family responsibilities and career as men do, why would they have less incentives or “vertical ambitions”?
Contrary to Roberts’ view, the lack of women in leadership roles is actually a tremendous problem for organisations with a considerable percentage of women at more junior/mid levels. Take Saatchi & Saatchi as an example: 65% of the workforce are female. Is it feasible that 65% of their current workforce do not have ambitions to grow into more senior roles?
If companies are hoping to enable their female workforce and prevent a leaking talent pipeline, they may want to look at some of the best practices of top employers for women here. They may also want to engage and listen to female employees to better identify their needs and expectations. Promoting women leadership is no longer merely a CSR “requirement”. It is also crucial to the success of a company’s talent retention, succession planning and future strategic development.