Sir Martin Sorrell claims women need to be 'aggressive' to succeed – WACL president Lindsay Pattison responds

WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell, not averse to creating talking points throughout his career, last night addressed the attendees at the Women in Advertising and Communications London (WACL) dinner and caused some consternation when he claimed that women needed to be ‘aggressive’ in order to be successful.

Sir Martin Sorrell

Outgoing president of WACL, Lindsay Pattison, writes for The Drum in reaction to Sir Martin’s comments and explains the circumstances:

At last night’s WACL dinner, Sir Martin Sorrell was on fine form speaking across a range of topics from world economies, the increasingly short tenures of CMOs, the UK election results and the impact for our business and then, the big T word.

That’s T for talent, with a focus on female talent, and he spoke about what WPP is doing to support it. So it was my brief I confess – possibly a hospital pass in such a feisty female dominated room – and he suggested that successful women were aggressive women.

This met with a few raised eyebrows and he was challenged on this, charmingly of course, in the Q&A. Did he perhaps mean ambitious or assertive…? He pulled back a little and said the key for him is commitment.

My view? Collaboration, empathy and flexibility are all crucial for effective leadership, and are traditionally perceived as female traits. Yet I also see in many of my fellow WACL women the characteristics of being hugely persuasive, a willingness to take risks and yes, and an A word, but I would call it assertiveness.

Leadership is a fluid, nuanced process; you need to be adept at switching your style and be culturally adaptive as needed. Perhaps because women need to fight harder against ingrained bias and the status quo, we need to be more tenacious and determined to work our way up – if that comes across as aggression then I guess I will simply choose to take it as a compliment.

Lindsay Pattison is chief executive of Maxus Worldwide. Pattison is stepping down as president of WACL, with Lindsey Clay, CEO of Thinkbox, taking over and Starcom MediaVest London’s co-CEO, Pippa Glucklich announced as the new vice president last week.

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