Circular ambition – the latest gender equality red herring

by | Aug 8, 2016

Circular ambition and why we all need to pay more attention

Circular ambition

Circular ambition

There has been a lot of column inches in the last days following the latest gaffe by now ex Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, Kevin Roberts, labelled "Kevinism" at least by Guardianistas. In a throw away remark in an interview with Business Insider about his upcoming book, he references women and their circular ambition:

 “Their ambition is not vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy. So they say, ‘We are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men judge yourself by.’”

Like other senior male leaders before him, he continued undaunted to stun:

I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they are very happy, they’re very successful, and doing great work. I can’t talk about sexual discrimination because we’ve never had that problem, thank goodness.”

As with many issues related to women and professional success in male dominated sectors, the situation is nuanced and much more complex. The creative ad world infamous for its Mad Men, rampant sexism and macho culture is certainly considered to have a problem. Although 85% of consumer decisions are made by women, only about 14% of senior roles are occupied by females.

But there is more to organisational and personal success than vertical ambition.[Tweet "Circular ambition should not be written off."]

Let's consider these circular ambition points:

# Vertical ambition

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Organisations are generally pyramids and many prefer to stay in the field of their choice. The pull of vertical ambition is not always present for both men and women. They don't want to leave the classroom, hospital ward, customer facing situations, hands on production or operational consulting to deal with management issues. Business development,  P & L, shareholder interests and Boards shift their focus. However the entire male gender is not written off by the men who prefer to stay as functional specialists, doing what they are good at and enjoy.
Vertical ambition also pre-supposes that most effective leadership is from the top. But as Greg Satell suggests "The greater truth is that in a world connected by digital technology, power no longer lies at the top of hierarchies, but at the center of networks"  He is of course referencing the tech sector which also shares a poor reputation for gender balance. Yet the theory still applies that the most successful comapnies are those that:
"embraced open technologies, built alliances and allowed their people to job hop."

 # Definition of success

Some women define success differently to men. Many would describe their ambitions as personal fulfillment, making a contribution, feeling valued and useful, are all important. Yet when you dig deeper and ask them what that means they will usually answer the following: to be in a happy marriage (although less ferquently than their male counterparts) to have healthy, happy, successful children, to have a "nice" home, to have hobbies and travel, to drive a car, to save for their older years, look after their parents and so on. All of these things cost money.

Yet, many women fail to put a price tag on these ambitions, frequently because they are judged harshly if they do. So they need to speak up and say  - yes I want to make a decent living.  But a guy saying he wants a highly paid job is admired for his vertical ambitions. Women with their circular ambitions, are expected to want to take care of things and make nice somewhere (not quite sure where.)

Circular ambition covers a wider spectrum of issues. It demands the integration of professional and personal goals. It plays a valuable role not just in organisational success, but contributing to a more balanced society and culture than the one we live in now. Because that's not going so well is it?

Read: Women put a price tag on your ambitions

# Senior jobs not attractive

The other reason is that vertical ambition as it exists and is expected now, especially in male dominated organisations, does not appeal to many women. Not at all. In a week where Marissa Mayer admits to working 130 hours per week, Roberts is correct.  Not only is it not for women, it's actually complete lunacy for men and women alike.  It shouldn't appeal to men either. We are plagued by a culture of overwork where I wrote some time ago:

Time scarcity seems to have become a corporate and cultural badge of success and an indicator of professional status. It is very much gender driven with overwork being intrinsic to male dominated corporate cultures.  Yet this is set against a backdrop of a chronic fall in employee engagement. Reports of a reduction in productivity, decreases in creativity and corresponding increases in days lost because of health issues are commonplace.

So instead of saying "Hmmm... we need to revisit this madness"  the conclusion is that women are not interested in working at a higher level across the board. [Tweet "Ergo there is no problem."] There is nothing wrong with our system, it's just not for their pretty little heads, raging hormones and their circular ambitions.

Some women are vertically ambitious. But they don't get the chance on their terms. But there is clearly something wrong with the current system when employee engagement is at an all time low.

The outcome is as Claire Zillman said  "For Roberts, and companies more generally, realizing that women seek power in a different way than men provides an opportunity to change the conversation—not end it."

Read: The Normalization of Deviancy and the Working Week 

Many women do not consider the "fucking debate to be all over." At all. But the better question to ask is whether vertical ambition is still a valid business and leadership model in today's world. If as Roberts says it's something that "idiotic dinosaur-like men" support  and bechmark themselves by, then we should probably start looking at alternatives.

Many people don’t start thinking about their careers until there is a problem. So take a few moments when you are relaxed, to understand what is important to you.  Have our Career Reflections Worksheets delivered right into your in-box.  Print them out in the old school way or keep them open on your phone. Use them as a guide to give your thoughts some structure.

Invest some time in yourself! Don't wait until it's too late!

[contact-form-7 id="26301" title="Summer is a great time to think about a Career Makeover"]

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.
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