The playing field is being levelled but the game is still rigged, Mr Roberts

As part of his 2014 documentary series Extreme South Africa, BBC presenter Reggie Yates introduces South African DJ Sizwe Dhlomo as a “black diamond” – a moniker reserved for young, black South Africans who have become financially successful in the post-Apartheid era.

This is a small segment in a broader documentary on how poverty is stretching across racial groups in the post-Apartheid society, but it features a brilliantly simple explanation on the enduring legacy of privilege, which could be applied to virtually any example of one class of people oppressing another over an extended period.   

As they drive past gated mansions still owned predominantly by the old, white upper class, Dhlomo uses a football analogy to explain his point.

He hypothesises a football game in which the referee has been so biased toward one team that the score ends up being 45-0. But then, the winning team acknowledges that they’ve been cheating, and call in a fair ref to take over at halftime.

The problem, however, is that it’s not yet a fair game; one team retains an advantage of 45 goals.

If we apply this analogy to Saatchi & Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts, it quickly becomes clear why so many people became so incensed by his inference that gender bias was a non-issue at his agency.

It wasn’t because he was wrong. Legally, in many countries, women and men today have equal rights. But in making this comment, he was essentially standing on the team 45-0 up and shouting that his massive advantage in the match didn’t matter, because everything was fair now.  

This is an old trick. It’s always easier for those in positions of privilege, to move on, to become colour blind and to say that gender doesn’t matter.

Admitting he doesn’t spend “any time” focusing on gender issues and then neatly seguing into a criticism of activist Cindy Gallop, Roberts creates the perception that he’s annoyed by the very idea of people discussing inequality in the workplace.

The thing is that perceptions matter. And at a time when women still only occupy around 11.5 percent of the creative director positions in adland, Publicis Groupe found the perceptions relayed by Roberts too harmful to be tolerated.

The decision by Publicis was met by the usual assertion that it’s a case of ‘political correctness gone mad’, a frustrating phrase regularly used in defence of high-profile individuals who cause offence by saying what they think.

But to claim that political correctness is some type of harmful force in the world once again overlooks history and the difference this societal tenet has made.

As comedian Stewart Lee explained in 2007: “I’m of an age that I can see what a difference political correctness has made. When I was four years old, my grandfather drove me around Birmingham, where the Tories had just fought an election campaign saying, ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,’ and he drove me around saying, ‘this is where all the niggers and the coons and the jungle bunnies live.’ … all these things have gradually been eroded by political correctness, which seems to me to be about an institutionalised politeness at its worst. And if there is some fallout from this, which means that someone in an office might get in trouble one day for saying something that someone was a bit unsure about because they couldn’t decide whether it was sexist or homophobic or racist, it’s a small price to pay for the massive benefits and improvements in the quality of life for millions of people…”

Yes, things have improved from when Roberts first entered the industry decades ago, but the problem is far from solved. 

Roberts’ faux pas has quickly been played down as unconscious bias, but this seems a cop-out. When he was making disparaging remarks about Gallop inventing issues and wanting to stand on a soapbox, these were presumably made by a smart, rational man. And similarly, his decision not to focus on gender issues in his agency comes from having thought long and hard about these things. 

String Theory’s Jane Cherrington pointed out on The Spinoff today that unconscious bias “insulates him from responsibility”.     

“What we need to strongly challenge is the idea of unconscious bias,” Cherrington argues. “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.”

There are always going to be those who doubt the continued prevalence of gender bias, and Roberts’ assertion that 65 percent of the staff at Saatchi are women seems to indicate that he doesn’t see himself as suffering from this condition. But, things are a bit more complicated than mere numbers.        

‘Look at how many women I hire’ has essentially become the advertising equivalent of ‘I have so many black friends’ —a statement used to prove progressiveness, but one which is utterly meaningless until the industry successfully addresses the gulf between the number of male and female executives across media and advertising.

Of course, advertising isn’t the only industry struggling to balance the scales. Roberts points out that the financial industry, for instance, is performing far worse than advertising in ensuring equal opportunities. This might be true for the most part, but the financial industry also holds a business leader that Roberts could learn a few things from.

Xero chief executive Rod Drury—who has also faced criticism for the makeup of his executive board—has started actively taking steps to change things; to be consciously aware of any unconscious bias. When he enters a meeting weighted unreasonably in favour of the usual demographic of old, white males, he makes a point of inviting a more diverse collection of staffers (who might not even be executives) into the meeting. 

Actions like these are doubly effective. He gets a different perspective on an issue, but also gives non-executive staffers a chance to learn something. 

Another admirable example in this space would be Vend chief executive Vaughan Rowsell, who simply refuses to sit on speaking panels filled only with men.   

“I can’t think of how many panels I’ve sat on which are just four or five guys – more often white, more often middle-aged – who kind of all agree with each other,” Rowsell previously told The Spinoff.

“It’s not just a gender diversity thing – it’s [about]diversity of views and opinions as well.”

While Rowsell openly admits that he doesn’t have all the answers, his recognition that there is a problem and his willingness to take steps to change it will play an important role in moving society forward.

For things to change, quite often those in positions of power need to recogonise their own privilege and then actively take steps to create a fairer environment for those looking up to them.

Perhaps, the reason behind Roberts’ unwillingness to do this is reflected in his philosophy on leadership.

“I think leadership is about trying to make a difference in the world and trying to be the best you can be for yourself and making happy choices,” he said in his interview with Business Insider.

The problem is that quite often doing what’s best for yourself is incongruent with making the world a better place for everyone else.

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