A gendered business

Published: April 10, 2012

The writer works at a venture capital firm in New York. She is an honour’s graduate of Stanford University

Pakistan embodies a strange contradiction when it comes to women in positions of power and influence. On one hand, the country boasts a female ambassador to the US, speaker of the House, foreign minister and the first female prime minister of a Muslim state. On the other hand, we are plagued with dowry abuse, domestic violence and acid throwing incidents. How can these two parallels coexist within one nation? Personally, I can only speak of the imbalance in the business world, especially in the field of technology. The current state of women in technology can be framed around two key points: fundamentals of the business and the influence of socialisation.

In fundamentals of the business, unsurprisingly, there are certain gendered traits that help men succeed in this industry.

a) Gut response: The capitalist ’gut’, although overzealously hyped, often turns out to be true. There is a certain feeling you get the minute a team walks in, the way it introduces its first slide, and the way it answers tough questions that gives you a sense of its ability to execute plans. It is hard to trust that gut because so often it is saturated with bias; but that bias is also a proxy for experience. Women need to trust that experience as much as men do and then not look back and second-guess their actions.

b) Risk and reward: It is not a secret that engaging in venture capitalism is a risky business. You can be a safe investor and be very metrics driven (which helps), but at the core of it, you are investing money in a premature, greenfield market space — one that is ripe for reward but also very susceptible to failure. I do not necessarily believe women are inherently risk averse. I have met many who are not. However, the way women measure themselves often becomes more about them as individuals and less about them as investors. According to a recent study on the ways in which women measure themselves, researchers discovered that when women suffered poorly on tests, they blamed themselves.

‘We could have done better. We could have studied harder.’

The majority of men, however, blamed the test itself.

‘The test was too hard. The questions weren’t phrased well.’

Everyone makes poor investments; it is part and parcel of the job. Often, it is the market that did not play out well, a team that did not  perform, or other external factors that have little to do with the investor who called the shots. Women need to internalise that reality.

c) Building networks: Women are good at building relationships — it is part of their innate ability to nurture that comes with giving birth and raising a family. Women have, for the most part, been able to connect with individuals with ease and warmth. But men are better at networking in a professional setting. A core aspect of building networks is asking for favours, and with favours comes indebtedness. Women fear indebtedness. Networks exist for the sole purpose of the ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ mantra. If women do not ask for favours, they are bestowed with fewer. They need to ask for more help. It will make them stronger, not weaker.

The second key point mentioned earlier, was the influence of socialisation. Socialisation is a generational trend and when underestimated, is hard to work past. In the US, financial services (Wall Street) and advertising (Madison Avenue), were not only dominated by men, but were also infamously toxic places to work in. The trends that developed in both industries were extremely hard to overcome due to years of an embedded environment. The role of the secretary did as much good as it did harm. It let women into the proverbial ‘door’ but then locked them up in that specific role with little upward or lateral mobility.

Technology and venture investing (although an offshoot of financial services), can avoid this generational influence. This industry is relatively new but ‘women-ready’ roles have already started settling in: community managers, sales executives, marketing vice-presidents. I admire and respect the women in these roles and the influence they have in their respective companies — but I am afraid these roles are becoming gendered. Technology is a dynamic and fluid ecosystem and women’s roles should follow a similarly fluid trajectory.

Gendered roles are one part of the problem. The other is the label fallacy we are propagating in our schools and colleges. I know it is important to intentionally create pathways for young girls to succeed — but how many times do they have to hear that it is incredible that a girl is majoring in mechanical engineering or computer science? How many times do they have to hear from their friends that being the only female engineer on Company X’s product team is a feat worth being lauded for? These feats should be intrinsic and accepted widely.

Women in my generation (18 to 35 years) can make an effort to project positive experiences about the technology industry for younger women (still in middle or high school). College, although many would disagree, is not the problem. The real problem and space for improvement is in middle and high school. If we start early, we protect girls from the influence of socialisation and point instead to role models who have affected change in society.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 11th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (24)

  • Farhan
    Apr 10, 2012 - 9:48PM

    Great article! Finally, some objective, research- and experience-oriented analysis. Well done!

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  • Awais Ch
    Apr 10, 2012 - 10:26PM

    Ufffffffffffffffffffff women women women ….. i really don’t understand who wants what????

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  • Yawar
    Apr 10, 2012 - 10:37PM

    Good article…on venture capitalism. Its too complicated for the average Pakistani to understand though.Recommend

  • Cynical
    Apr 10, 2012 - 10:38PM

    @Awais Ch

    Don’t worry about others.First, make up your mind what you want.Rest will be easier to comprehend.

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  • Samana H Codipially
    Apr 10, 2012 - 10:42PM

    @Awais Ch women have been treated as second class citizens now they are breaking the glass ceiling and gender bias is being destroyed so that is why you really don’t understand who wants what???? Recommend

  • Mustafa
    Apr 10, 2012 - 11:05PM

    Excellent article. I work for a Venture fund in the US, and I’ve had similar experiences to the findings. The technology industry in general is young, and we can nip this trend in the bud if we can create more awareness about it. Targeting middle school girls is a great idea for the next generation of technologists, but I feel there are women like yourself coming out of college who can make calculated bets and can be a part of this industry. If we make a conscious effort to get these women into investment roles, we can prevent these roles from becoming gendered. We need more Sheryl Sandberg’s popularizing these findings..

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  • pmbm
    Apr 10, 2012 - 11:19PM

    Education should take of this problem.But it should be accompanied by good principles based character for both women and men.

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  • Awais Ch
    Apr 10, 2012 - 11:35PM

    @Samana H Codipially:
    but i don’t….. i do understand the deliberations of a woman.

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  • Parvez
    Apr 11, 2012 - 12:09AM

    You started with examples of Pakistani women and ask the question of the contradiction in our national structure. Then you go ahead and explain your position from an American point of reference, which in my mind was a clear disconnect although the read was interesting.

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  • Seema Sikhander
    Apr 11, 2012 - 12:10AM

    @ Awais Ch – What do these women want anyway? This is the question Pakistani men frequently asking as women take a place at the table.
    The difficulty for people like you was is that there were no guidelines on how you should behave with “liberated” women in Pakistan. With nothing taken for granted and nothing off the table, you suffer from considerable confusion and anxiety about women.
    Despite the misogynistic views of this prehistoric throwback and your frustration the balance has already tipped in favor of Pakistani women’s equality, and women are competing on an equal basis with men — and succeeding — in politics, education, the professions, and business. And the scale isn’t tipping back.and be prepared brother to take a seat in the back if the bus,Recommend

  • SaudiRules
    Apr 11, 2012 - 12:58AM

    Lets start with baby steps. Lets start with women in pakistan be freely able to drive a two-wheeler with their heads uncovered. Go across the border and women folks from a teenager to grandma can be seen freely riding on their two-wheeler to go to buy grocery, pick/drop their kids to school, go to work/school/college etc., even in small towns.
    If woman cant even have a free movement alone in the society, they ain’t going to be CEOs, Investors etc. anytime soon!
    P.S. I gave an example of two-wheeler because it is very affordable for the vast majority of us.

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  • Awais Ch
    Apr 11, 2012 - 2:29AM

    @Seema Sikhander:
    I know very well that ” women are competing on an equal basis with men — and succeeding — in politics, education, the professions, and business” that’s why am confused what else do women want??? Problem lies within women themselves, mostly middle class women who want to be at the mercy of men, they prefer getting married and giving birth to children instead of being a professional in any field….. i have also seen women as a team leader, as a manager, as a chartered accountant, as a pilot officer etc etc etc …….. So problem lies within women, if they want to be independent they can…….. Choice is yours :) Recommend

  • Awais Ch
    Apr 11, 2012 - 2:37AM

    @SaudiRules:
    Some women in our country want to drive a 22 wheeler truck & you are talking about two-wheeler LOL :)

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  • Lubna Latif
    Apr 11, 2012 - 2:38AM

    @SaudiRules – So what is your point? if you have one to share do the rest of us women wait for women in rural areas to be able to move freely when under the strong hold of ignorance?

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  • Padma Lasksami
    Apr 11, 2012 - 4:21AM

    @Awais Ch I think your lack of understanding if women should a career or chose motherhood.
    Unlike their male counter parts women can juggle both a quality lacking in most men. Men are a lazy species that find just being a man and keeping a profession is work enough.
    Women in India, Pakistan and Asia are showing they can manage a career and a being a mother. Are you severely intimidated by such strong women?

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  • Raj - USA
    Apr 11, 2012 - 5:26AM

    Men and woman think differently. Even boys and girls think different. In an exam. boys and girls were given s long sentence and asked to punctuate. The sentence was:
    woman without he man is a savage.

    Boys punctuated : Woman, without her man, is a savage.
    Girls punctuated : Woman, without her, man is a savage.

    Placing of the coma makes a world of difference in the meaning.

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  • Mirza
    Apr 11, 2012 - 9:16AM

    The problem with Pakistan is lack of education for women and inequality from birth to death. How many women are among dozens of SC judges? How many women in many dozens of generals are women? These are the people who make and implement policies and laws especially during military rule. A SC bench of women judges would not let the rapists of M. Mai walk away. Even when it comes to corruption, extremism, and violence women show a lot better character than men.

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  • sars
    Apr 11, 2012 - 11:08AM

    @Awais Ch:
    Its not rocket science.What do men want ? women are also humans and most of the same things.

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  • Shehrbano Taseer
    Apr 11, 2012 - 2:12PM

    Well done Leila!

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  • mrk
    Apr 11, 2012 - 5:02PM

    The article is completely disconnected from Pakistani perspective – how many men in Pakistan work in Venture Capital let alone women?

    And as the author also pointed out, women’s role on Wall Street is significantly under-represented even in this age. However, things have improved. I still don’t get the author’s point why VE roles are better suited for women as compared to non-VC finance roles or equity research/investment/retail banking roles.

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  • socialist
    Apr 11, 2012 - 7:24PM

    for women failure is not an option they cant take risks for thier failure is bound to be intrpreted in sexist vein

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  • Huma
    Apr 11, 2012 - 10:09PM

    great article! and so true! as for @awais ch… it wasnt about men… it was woman, writing about how women deal with things in the business world and the positives and negatives in it… it wasnt about u or men or anything that u needed to rant on.

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  • Awais Ch
    Apr 11, 2012 - 10:13PM

    @Mirza:
    Oh for GOD sake yaar now leave “M. Mai”, move forward buddy just chill :) M. Mai was a fraud….. NGO behind M. Mai case earned millions which was the actual purpose

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  • Asma Asfaque
    Apr 11, 2012 - 10:41PM

    @ Awais Ch You my friend seem extremely uneasy with this article and the celebration of women in Pakistan! Now you are accusing M. Mai as a fraud? You are in serious need of help. You think M. Mai staged a rape for the NGO so they could profit? your theory is beyond pathetic seriously for you to be in that think tank is a reason why our Pakistani sisters have a huge challenge but the saving factor is that your way of thinking Inshallah is in the minority percentage.

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