Exec's Jurassic remark on women a blessing in disguise?

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Story highlights

  • Anne-Marie Slaughter: Exec's sexist remark on women's "circular ambition" is a blessing in disguise
  • Comment fails to note women may want something different but refuse to make untenable sacrifices to get it, she says
  • Slaughter: Circular ambition? Tell that to Hillary Clinton

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and CEO of New America, a nonpartisan organization committed to big ideas that break ideological boundaries. She is the author of "Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family," which will be released in paperback August 8. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It appears that we are still in the Jurassic Age. Saatchi and Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts was caught recently declaring in an interview that the debate over "gender equality" is over and that women have an "intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy," unlike men's "vertical ambition," e.g. to reach the top of mountains of power and money.

Anne-Marie Slaughter
Due to this cozy circle they have found -- is anyone else reminded of "happy homemakers"? -- Roberts imagines that women say to themselves: " 'We are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men judge yourself by.'"
    "Dinosaur-like" are the only two words in that passage I agree with.
    Just when we think we are making real progress, Donald Trump starts evaluating women openly on their looks and referring to their menstrual periods and now this.
    But let me start actually by thanking Mr. Roberts. Like hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, who told a symposium at the University of Virginia back in 2013 that mothers will never rival men as traders because babies are a focus "killer," at least he said what he really thought.
    If we can't hear it, we can't fight it. Indeed, the Trump campaign proves beyond doubt that by preventing many people from saying things in public that are racist and sexist, we have not stopped them from thinking those things.
    Moreover, I doubt that Roberts is as retrograde as he managed to portray himself. Many women spoke up for Tudor Jones as a man who had promoted women when he could. Similarly, Roberts said something important in the interview that I quite agree with: "This is a diverse world. We are in a world where we need, like we've never needed before, integration, collaboration, connectivity, and creativity."
    Absolutely -- which means we need more women, and more people of color, in more places than ever before, preferably running the show.
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    The real problem is that Roberts is simply wrong about the nature of "female ambition." He seems completely blind to the possibility that women might actually want something different but have reconciled themselves to the impossibility of getting it, or else pay a high price for trying.
    I suggest he start by watching the new movie "Equity," which dares suggest that many women like making lots and lots of money just as much as men do, but puts on full display the reactions and roadblocks they encounter when they admit it. Every ambitious woman I know, certainly including myself, has been told explicitly and implicitly, over and over, never to admit that, much less emulate ambitious men.
    All together now: "When a man drives something to conclusion, overriding objections from others, he knows how to get things done. When a woman does exactly the same thing, she has 'sharp elbows'." That's the nice version. Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In" has spotlighted this problem, but it's certainly still out there.
    Equally important, since women are by far still the primary caregivers if they have children, they are climbing that vertical mountain with a heavy pack on their back, competing with men who are skipping ahead unencumbered. Small wonder that perhaps they would choose the circular path, heading upwards but at a slower pace and hoping against hope that there might still be room at the summit when they are ready to accelerate again.
    Try giving them real options to do both and see what happens. Try making space for caregiving parents during crucial years and telling them it's fine to do fewer deals or take on fewer accounts because they can ramp up again when they are ready and still be considered for top slots. Many people might have said of Hillary Clinton that she was happy with a circular path as first lady of Arkansas and then of the United States. Amazingly, however, after daughter Chelsea went to college, Clinton seems to have recovered her vertical ambition.
    But there is one final place where Roberts is right.
    How many vertically ambitious men do you know who climb the heights and when they get there, realize that their marriage has fallen apart and they don't know their children? Who marry a trophy wife, have a second family, and then sing the virtues and pleasures of fatherhood? I know lots of women who think if that is the price of ambition, it's not worth paying. I know plenty of men who feel that way too, and I admire them for it.
    So women and men who value care, who know the deep pleasures of investing in others as well as investing in themselves, may indeed have a different set of standards for evaluating whether they have succeeded in life.
    We may indeed see people who have only one metric as dinosaurs. But it's not men versus women. It's the new Age of Enlightenment versus "Jurassic Park."