Mad Men? Alive and Well and Still Maddenignly Sexist

08/08/2016 16:07 | Updated 08 August 2016

So, gender prejudice in the workplace is dead? I think not, if the off-message comments of advertising agency head Kevin Roberts are a guide. It's actually a pesky virus that just got smarter.

Roberts has just resigned early as chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi over the "miscommunication" he made in a magazine interview in which he suggested that some women and men - this was an equal opportunity jibe - just want to be happy and do great work.

He went on: "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." (There are none running the top six UK advertising agencies).

Men can react for themselves to this. But for women it's what we always suspected: Gender bias has not gone away, it just been re-imagined by a slicker mind. Note the effortless way that the dinosaur image, so often used to wound the unreconstructed, has been appropriated in a de-fanging, mildly self-mocking way, as if to say: 'we're in some sort of post-prejudice world, don't you know.' Only most of us are not.

It also matters because Mr Roberts is not just some cranky person at the end of the street making widgets. Saatchi & Saatchi is part of the Publicis multinational advertising and public relations empire and Roberts had a mentoring role, apparently, in addition to his other responsibilities. This is a sophisticated business in the business of moulding views.

Dig deeper and you soon discover that only 30.5 per cent of people employed in the sector are women, of whom just 11.5 were creative directors in 2014. And this in an activity that peddles products to consumers, including women.

Some of us already suspect that many of these products are designed to keep us just the right side of feminine as far as many men are concerned anyway. In other words, insecure and needing a life full of products just to be alive. We have reason to suspect a lid has been lifted by this 'miscommunication' rather than an isolated individual's wow-astonishing opinions exposed.

What is surprising about the Roberts interview is that he plainly thought what he said was no big deal, certainly not enough to get him sent home. It doesn't read like a controversialist doing their thing.

Separately, we have also heard from one of the most powerful women in the business world, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, complaining about "gender-charged reporting" by the media, another part of the view moulding world.

Taken together we have been given a window into modern prejudice. After all, most of us know men with accomplished wives and daughters who still look up to less able men first.

Bias has not gone away, and if someone as powerful as Marissa Mayer can feel it, and as contemporary as Kevin Roberts articulate it, we really do still have a problem. Maryon Pearson, wife of a Canadian prime minister, once noted: "Behind every successful man there stands a surprised woman." She was nearly right. In fact, standing behind is often a patronised or passed-over woman one, too.