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.
Those are the depressing findings of a new study by Catherine Turco, titled: Cultural Foundations of Tokenism : Evidence from the Leveraged Buyout Industry.
Turco was a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, and currently is a graduate student in the university’s sociology department (the study was published by the American Sociological Review).
Her original goal was to examine occupational structure and workplace dynamics in the private equity industry, but she soon changed gears to focus specifically on the experiences of women and African-American men. Both are severe minorities in private equity, which each representing less than 10% of the total professional workforce (a lower figure than in corporate law or investment banking).
What Turco found was that while both groups face serious structural barriers at the outset (i.e., getting a foot in the door), women face far greater cultural challenges.
Before continuing, I cringed a bit at the thesis (our oppression is worse than your oppression). And Turco explicitly acknowledges the prospect for her own biases, being a white female. She notes, however, that African-American women she interviewed also felt that their gender was more relevant than their race within private equity firms. Moreover, Turco says that many African-American men openly discussed personal experiences of racism within their professional lives, thus making Turco more confident that she wasn’t only getting one side of the story.
So what is it about being a women that’s so problematic within private equity firms?
Turco identifies two primary factors: The first is a knowledge and love of sports. Take a look at the following two quotes from people Turco interviewed — the first is an African-American man, the second is a woman:
Turco also mentioned that “women who never followed sports before entering [private equity] reported watching SportsCenter or checking ESPN.com regularly now.”
There obviously is an implicit assumption here — that men are into sports and women aren’t. There obviously are exceptions to both, which is why Turco’s second cultural factor is much more compelling: Motherhood (or the potential for motherhood).
Turco argues that the private equity ideal is someone who puts work above all else, and that most male private equity pros find that to be inherently incompatible with motherhood (even if the mother has multiple paid caregivers or a stay-at-home husband). This is despite the fact, she says, that private equity pros travel less and work shorter days than do their peers in the investment banking, law or consulting worlds. In other words, it’s the idea of motherhood that offends, rather than its actual demands.
Some troubling excerpts:
Private equity firms, for the most part, are small partnerships. Often they are born of existing relationships, and it’s difficult to join if you aren’t already “in the club.” I get it, and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that.
But private equity has a serious problem if it cannot adequately incorporate “others” when it comes time to expand. Women obviously should not be second-class citizens within their own firms or, even worse, be excluded from the hiring process altogether. Private equity firms may have come a long way from the days in which it was literally impossible to find a female partner, but it has not come nearly far enough. The core culture must evolve, not just the payroll demographics.