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Saatchi Exec Said Women Lack the Ambition to Make it to the Top. He’s Not Wrong

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Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts Photograph by Vittorio Zunino Celotto Getty Images

The backlash was swift when Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts last week told Business Insider that women lack “vertical ambition.”

Publicis Group, owner of the communications and advertising firm, announced the next day that due to the “gravity” of Roberts’ remarks, he’d been asked to take a leave of absence and the company’s supervisory board was “further evaluat[ing] his standing.”

Roberts comments came off as crude—especially since he works in an industry dogged by a reputation for sexism—but the gist of what he said was not necessarily untrue.

Roberts told BI in an interview Friday that Saatchi has had trouble promoting women to senior-level roles, a shortcoming he blamed, in large part, on women’s own dislike for managing people and a piece of the business.

“So we are trying to impose our antiquated shit on them, and they are going: ‘Actually guys, you’re missing the point, you don’t understand: I’m way happier than you.’ Their ambition is not a 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.’ 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.”

Roberts is far from the first person to float the idea of “vertical” power, though he failed to acknowledge that there’s another type—horizontal. Pattie Sellers, now executive director of Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summits, has long compared the two this way: In chasing vertical power, men look toward the bigger job, the next rung on the ladder. Women’s perspective, meanwhile, is more peripheral, allowing them to see and seek opportunities that come along the way. They strive for horizontal power through a wider lens, one that takes into account the influence they wield and the legacy they’ll leave behind. Oprah, for instance, once defined power as “the ability to impact with purpose.” It’s a different kind of ambition, not a lack of it.

In her book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg used the jungle gym metaphor to describe her career and those of some women colleagues. That comparison is more apt for many women than the traditional corporate ladder since it allows for lateral movement, which women often want as they seek jobs with more meaning or as they take caregiving hiatuses.

The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, or reentering the workforce after taking time off. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment. Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top. On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.

Another problem with Roberts’ comments—in addition to painting women with an extremely broad brush—is that he seemed to suggest that the discussion about gender equality in advertising was essentially null (“the fucking debate is all over,” as he so succinctly put it) since women’s career trajectories don’t fit into the straight-up-and-down model. That’s an awfully convenient excuse. 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.