Friday, July 15, 2005

What Does 'To Play The Woman Card' Mean?

At a recent venture capital gathering, I took the opportunity to ask the panelists the question, “What share of your overall deal flow comes from women-owned businesses?”

While one venture capitalist reported they’d done 5 such deals, the other 4 panelists indicated they had done no deals with women-owned businesses. Most panelists suggested that the problem was that they RECEIVED very few deal offers from women-owned businesses.

My question was phrased to ask for their insight into what could I do to improve the deal flow of qualified proposals from women-owned businesses. One speaker generously responded with the following advice:

    First, don’t try to be anything other than yourself.
    Second, don’t try to be a man.
    Third, don’t ‘play the woman card’.

That was good advice under all circumstances, but later -– of course –- I wondered to myself what, exactly, does it mean ‘to play the woman card’. I emailed and called afterwards, seeking clarification. But, I suspect that this is too sensitive a subject even to discuss in private for any business person. So, I have to try to find the answer, by myself.

I suspect that ‘to play the woman card’ means: to try to get special favors or preferences just because one is a woman or just because, historically, women have had a small share of the economic pie.

In another panel setting, where the topic was boards of directors, I asked another authority what he thought it would take to increase the share of women directors. His response was to warn against expecting that any type of quota system would accomplish the objective. To him, I suspect that ‘to play the woman card’ meant trying to get preferential treatment such as the idea suggested by “the black robe” or “the woman robe” on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I asked the head of research at a major executive search firm about their recent survey which showed significant progress in the share of women on boards of directors. Like the venture capitalist, her reply was that very few women actually PURSUE the opportunity of service on public corporate boards of directors. Board nominating committees, today, were very interested in a “diversity” of thinking and representation among their directors. She reported that, in her experience, it has not been easy to find talented, experienced, and educated candidates to fit the bill.

From the Internet, we read about another view of ‘to play the woman card’:

    “Why reserve seats for women on boards as in buses? “ by S. Muralidharan

    “I too have reservations about reservation for women on company boards. And I am no misogynist either. It is one thing to give mandatory representation to women in the political decision-making process. But the idea of reservation for women on boards of companies is [the] height of romanticism.

    “If the Government feels that the move will have a sobering effect on the male-dominated boards, I am afraid it is in for disappointment. And if it expects buccaneer entrepreneurs to be less rapacious under the watchful eyes of women, once again its expectation may be belied. It is not even remotely suggested that women are not fit for the rough and tumble of boardroom jousts.

    “A woman should make it to the board on her own steam. Else, she may be a part of the board under sufferance. Corporate governance presupposes following of sound business practices — profit maximisation tempered with altruistic concerns. Let not the Government trivialise the concept. The optional regime of giving representation to small shareholders has had no takers so far. “

Could it be that women ARE trying ‘to play the woman card’ -– looking for preferences -- rather than doing their homework, doing the basics, doing the hard business of going through the ropes to simply get the job done, get the money, get the business plan considered, stand up and get the grilling from a VC or lender, or try to get on a board of directors?

Are women expecting the business world to change all the rules just to accommodate them? Are women expecting to be able to accomplish the same goals and objectives by taking short-cuts? Getting favors? Through special deals and discounts?

Are women trying for a measure of over-compensation for all of the historic economic past disparities, all at once? Something along the lines of female-reparations?

Let’s say that I have a preference for working within the economic marketplace, and I want to work to create better business deal offerings for business owners who just happen to be women. Let’s say I chose to do so because I see that there is a lot of room for improvement in the number and quality of deals that could be generated as a percentage of the total number of women-owned businesses added to the supply every year. That’s what I see as the economics of the marketplace, not the gender of the marketplace.

Will I be branded as ‘playing the woman card’ because I am interested in promoting this potential segment of the marketplace? What will it take for both of us, men and women in business, to move to the point where we look at the numbers? Are we condemned always to be red-flagged as ‘expecting favoritism’ just because we are talking about the segment of the marketplace that historically has been small and is now growing quickly?

I would have thought that to talk about a strong and growing marketplace would have been of interest to venture capitalists –- if I could work to make deals from that source stronger and more viable.

In my many years of professional experience, I can’t say that either I received benefits or incurred costs due to my gender. I have tried to operate on the premise that “there is a level playing field” -- regardless of whether such a level playing field, in fact, existed. To assume the playing field was fixed against me seemed only to promise failure. I chose otherwise.

So, as I ask the question “What can I do to improve the deal flow of qualified proposals from women-owned businesses?” I mean exactly that -– “What can I do”?

I do not mean to ask “What are YOU doing?” or to ask “What are OTHERS doing?” Or “What will you do to overcome a history of poor performance?”. I certainly do not ask “What quotas, laws, rules, or regulations could be put into place to compel you and others to improve the deal flow?”

I am inquiring, “If I can talk women-owned businesses into building better businesses and better business plans, would you be interested in hearing their presentations?” “If I can teach women-owned businesses to better match their business products and services to your investment criteria, would you be willing to look at their plans?” “If I can talk women-owned businesses into doing a better job of preparing themselves, their management teams, their financials, their market analyses for ‘prime time’, would you be willing to work with me to give them feedback and recommendations?”

Just like anyone else.