You’ve probably never heard of the one thing that’s killing your career.

“The f**king debate is all over”, Kevin Roberts, ex-chairman of global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, told Business Insider last Saturday.

Yes, that’s right. The fight for gender equality in the workforce is over. According to Roberts women have a different type of ambition than men – “circular ambition” – and they don’t actually want the top jobs.

(He’s now ex-chairman because of these comments. But he’s not the only one who believes them to be true.)

I’d never heard of circular ambition but, apparently, it’s to be blamed for a lot of things. Like the fact women hold only 12% of the world’s board seats. Or that, in Roberts’ industry specifically, only 11.5% of creative director positions are held by females.

What’s needed, apparently, to land that comfy leather boardroom chair is “vertical ambition”.

I’d never heard of this either. But vertical ambition is a ‘take no prisoners’ approach. It’s driven by the want for wealth, power, fame. It’s a type of ambition that was created by old, white, angry men, and is still celebrated and promoted-to-executive-level-positions by the old, white, angry men.

Vertical ambition sounds awful.

Circular ambition, in comparison, is a much more holistic pathway. Less dedicated to landing the top job, more focused on the ‘meaningful’ things in life. As Roberts explains.

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


(Thank goodness).

Some bosses just let us do our jobs. Other bosses make work a nightmare. Post continues below video.

There are several things that are right about this statement.

Yes, women do deliver great work.

No, women don’t judge ourselves by the same standards as men.

Our standards are often higher, more complex, because our pathway to success is not straight and uncluttered like a male’s might be. Our pathway is held to different expectations by society; it’s diverted by child bearing; challenged by less pay; slowed by the fact we have to prove our value is more than our cleavage and cute smile.

Women judge themselves constantly. We judge the way we work and perform; the way we are a partner; the way we are a mother. We don’t judge ourselves by the same standards as men. We can’t afford to.

Yes, our ambition might be more intrinsic. We might look to success and see several things – happiness, fulfilment, the people around us, as well as the trajectory in our career.

But I have no idea why this should keep us out of boardrooms.

Holding the threads of life side by side (or, even in a circular fashion) does not detract from ambition. It adds to it. we are often still heading in the same direction but just not in a straight line.

Women look at that leathery boardroom chair the same way we look at every aspect of our lives: a job to be done, well.

A job to be done alongside, not at the expense of, the other threads and priorities in our lives.

Then Roberts continued:

“We have a bunch of talented, creative females, but they reach a certain point in their careers … 10 years of experience, when we are ready to make them a creative director of a big piece of business, and I think we fail in two out of three of those choices because the executive involved said: ‘I don’t want to manage a piece of business and people, I want to keep doing the work’.”


Roberts got a few things right, but he got one thing fundamentally, crucially wrong.

He believes it’s women keeping themselves out of creative director positions. It’s not.

It’s the failure of companies to recognise the need for diversity. Recognise different pathways to the same place.

It’s putting women in boxes, and using handy, dangerous labels like ‘vertical’ and ‘circular’. One label is straight, long, narrow, tall, far-reaching. The other is soft, safe, stable, and goes around and around.

Women shouldn’t have to do things the same way as men. We are not the same as men.

Our ambition might be different, but it’s no less powerful.

When the world sees value in these differences, and views a woman’s ambition as equal because of (not in spite of) these differences, only then will the “f**king debate be over”.

Roberts has stepped down. But his attitudes are not isolated. The corporate world is still still celebrating ‘vertical’ ambition, or the ways of old, white men. The type of men who can focus solely on work while someone else raises their children and cleans their houses and makes sure they get their annual heart check ups.

I wonder how comfortable those boardroom chairs feel, when they’ve only been attained at the expense of families, happiness, ‘lesser’ priorities?

I guess women will never know. Thank goodness for ‘circular’ ambition.