On February 9, 2011 in Fortune’s online newsletter called The Term Sheet (required reading for us venture/private equity folk) there was a story written by Dan Primack entitled, “Private equity is a man’s world… seriously.”
In the article, Dan chides: “Are you a woman who wants to succeed in private equity? Here’s some free advice: Learn about sports. And don’t get pregnant. In fact, it might be best to project an active antagonism toward motherhood.” I have met Dan and I am quite confident he doesn’t actually believe this sentiment himself, but it does have a remarkable ring of truth to it.
Dan came to his advice by way of a study by Catherine Turco, a Harvard scholar who published a new study called Cultural Foundations of Tokenism: Evidence from the Leveraged Buyout Industry. In her study, Turco reminds us that fewer than 10% of private equity professionals are women and identifies two primary reasons for the somewhat overt discrimination against women: a lack of sports intelligence and the presence of functioning ovaries.
According to Turco, the first reason men exclude women is because they can’t quote the point spread for the Super Bowl and, worse, don’t know that Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Quarterback and 2010 Super Bowl MVP, is a former UC Berkeley sports star—Go Bears!. According to Turco, a lack of sports enthusiasm, knowledge and activism disenfranchises women and tends to keep them from firm social events, such as pick-up basketball games after work or golf outings or, in the case of Green Bay fans, bratwurst hurling, that helps one move up the partnership ladder. According to Turco, “women who never followed sports before entering [private equity] reported watching SportsCenter or checking ESPN.com regularly.” Now that’s what I call professional development. Can you get continuing education credits for watching SportsCenter?
It sounds kind of ridiculous, but I’m guessing there’s a ring of truth to it. There hasn’t been a Monday morning partners’ meeting at my firm that hasn’t started with a rehash of the weekend’s scores and highlights. We have covered the Knicks, the Yankees, the Mets, the Phillies, the Giants, the other Giants and a myriad of others in as great a depth as some of our portfolio companies. Fortunately I kind of get into that stuff, particularly during baseball season, so it hasn’t kept me too out of the loop (Go Giants!). And the guys I work with just aren’t the chick-hating type. Nevertheless, it is an interesting theory about why women are prevented from rising up the private equity ladder. In small companies, as venture and private equity firms typically are, people tend to clump with people of similar interests and temperament. But I know a lot of women who like sports, so that can only be part of the answer.
Which leads us to the reason that really galls me. Turco asserts that most male private equity pros find the work requirements of our field to be “inherently incompatible with motherhood (even if the mother has multiple paid caregivers or a stay-at-home husband)”, despite the presence of evidence that that female worker is keeping up just fine, thank you. In other words, as Dan Primack paraphrases for Turco, it’s the idea of motherhood that offends, rather than its actual demands.
Turco cites incidences of male partners dismissing and or verbally abusing women because they did or might get pregnant and reports that recruiters confirm that they are often told not to send women candidates because it will end badly, when the woman goes and gets herself knocked up.
All I have to say to this is: I did not realize so many male private equity executives were the product of immaculate conception. And furthermore, I am concerned to hear that they themselves are not involved in parenting, much less engaging in the risky behaviors that lead to parenting. Women that get pregnant and produce the children of private equity executives are somehow dispensible, but the men who produce the children of private equity executives are a cut above? That is truly lame. I know it happens. I have, in my career, heard some of this drivel myself, but how can this persist in today’s world? There are a lot more female athletes than there are female private equity executives, I’ll wager, which heightens the irony.
I have said before that I teach an MBA class at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business on healthcare venture capital. This semester there are 18 students in my class, of which 15 are women and 3 are men. What kills me is that I know that by the time these people filter out into the real world of work, the odds are that no more than 1 of these women will end up in my field, not for lack of interest, but for lack of being given a chance. If men can wear toupees to cover up their baldness and thus find themselves more youthful and attractive to potential employers, perhaps one of my medical device colleagues can develop something to camouflage ovaries so those men who have a hard time looking beyond them will not get so distracted.