Joanna Williams

Saatchi’s sexism row suggests feminists can’t handle debate

Saatchi's sexism row suggests feminists can't handle debate
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Forget Pimm's, sunburn and rain abandoned picnics. What really makes summer is a heap of outrage directed at an old white man for saying something feminists think is beyond the pale. Last year it was Sir Tim Hunt and his quip about the problem of women in labs. This time it is Kevin Roberts, chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, who has suggested gender bias is not an issue in the advertising industry. For this crime against feminism, Roberts has been suspended and will spend this summer in his garden rather than in the office.

Unpicking the obligatory social media bluster about ‘misogyny’ and ‘the patriarchy’ to work out where exactly Roberts went wrong is not easy. His sin, it seems, was to claim that there are loads of talented women working in advertising but, when they are offered the top jobs, some of them decide they have other priorities and would rather not, thank you very much.

Rules about what can and can’t be said get more complicated every day. At least now we all know to preface conversations about the workplace with statements of women’s continued oppression. We know not to be so foolish as to claim that women might make decisions about how to lead their own lives according to their own priorities. Above all else we know never to suggest that sexual discrimination is not an issue.

But those cheering on Roberts’ suspension need to take a reality check. For the past quarter of a century, girls have done better at school than boys and more young women than men have gone on to university. As a result more women are embarking upon highly paid and successful careers than ever before. For women under the age of forty there is no gender pay gap. Women account for 46.4 per cent of those employed in advertising. The proportion of women creative directors rose from just 3 per cent in 2010 to 11.5 per cent in 2014. Across the sector as a whole, 30.5 per cent of senior executives are female.

At Saatchi and Saatchi, 32 per cent of senior management positions are held by women. This is clearly not an agency stuck in a Mad Men time-warp. In advertising, as in all industries, women have made great progress in a very short space of time. Especially for many younger people, gender equality in the workplace is a fact of life. Denying this and constantly telling women they are oppressed at work does no one, least of all young women, any favours.

We need to be able to acknowledge the progress that women have made in order to have an honest discussion about what still needs to be done to improve everyone’s working lives. Part of this discussion needs to be about individual choice. Women are not a homogenous group who all want to be the next CEO or all want to be stay-at-home mums.

It shouldn’t be outrageous to suggest that some women may want to concentrate on their careers in their twenties and thirties but then take a step back for a while when they have children. As Roberts argued, it’s not just women but young men too who are deciding that they have priorities other than making it to the top of the business hierarchy. What’s important is not the particular choices individuals make but that people earn enough money and have access to flexible and affordable childcare in order to be able to make these choices freely.

Of course, when people are free to choose for themselves whether they want to be the next CEO, work part time or not at all, there’s no reason to assume that we’ll end up with a perfect gender balance. However, claiming that the decisions women make are not taken freely but are a response to an oppressive working environment is to relegate women to the status of children. Women at work have proved they are equal to men; it is now feminism that is telling them they are not and never will be.

The decision to suspend Roberts is now being lauded as a victory for common sense and efficiency. But whether or not you think we have achieved gender equality, it is surely better to have such discussions out in the open rather than put beyond debate. It’s bad enough that women have to put up with constantly being told that they are victims in the workplace without also being told they can’t cope with a man who has opinions. If the 32 per cent of female senior managers at Saatchi disagreed with what Roberts said they should have told him so, loudly. That would have been a far more empowering message for young women starting out in advertising today and a far better enactment of the ‘Viva la Difference!’ company motto.

Joanna Williams is Education Editor at Spiked.