Gutting the Gut Decision


A short time ago, A VC named John Greathouse published an op ed piece in the WSJ — in the Leadership section, no less — urging women to get noticed by VCs with the unique stratagem of disguising their gender by using their initials instead of their names.

“A gender-neutral persona allows women to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them,” reasoned Greathouse. He bolsters his argument with the famous story of how introducing blind auditions transformed the mostly male symphony orchestras of the 70s to the gender-balanced orchestras of today.

The point of the story, of course, is that that women are hired more often by symphony orchestras when the hiring manager’s natural biases against women are stymied.

That Greathouse takes the famous ‘curtain’ example of symphony orchestra auditions and subverts it to the cause of sexism is sort of incredible to me, but it’s also just another day in the life of being a woman.

Greathouse defends his initial suggestion with some more dubiously applied research conclusions:

“Studies have shown that the less time someone has, the greater degree they rely on their gut, rather than data, when evaluating someone for the first time. These initial impressions might be positive or negative — but they are seldom neutral.”

This actually gets at the core of Greathouse’s cluelessness, which is not sexism but overconfidence in his personal schema, or, put another way, glorification of his gut.

Perhaps if he’d read farther down the research extract about the orchestra curtain study Mr. Greathouse would have found another quote, equally quotable, and with far more wisdom: “With effort, we can overcome our biases to some extent, but we are continually tasked with needing to correct ourselves.”

I was angry when I read the WSJ piece but after all Mr. Greathouse represents a group of people that are definitely listening to male *him* more than they are listening to female *me*, so I immediately changed my Angel List profile, adding initials and a moustache. And it worked! I did receive a few more profile views. So the advice to disguise one’s femaleness might actually be effective…. in the same way cutting off your foot to prevent the spread of an infected cut is effective. There’s surely a better way, but don’t look to Mr. Greathouse to provide it — he’s been pretty quiet after a tweeted mea culpa.

Medium’s Ross Fubini, who calls himself “dismayed and bewildered” by Greathouse’s op-ed, charges the business community to confront the intellectual dishonesty inherent in ‘going with the gut’.

“They say that they believe in diversity of thought, but their pattern matching habits cause them to prematurely narrow their aperture before giving certain entrepreneurs a chance to prove themselves.”

Fubini is right that pattern matching habits can be as destructive as they are time saving. Cognitive scientists call these habits your personal schema — your particular filtered way of seeing the world. Personal schema are invaluable to the busy business person, enabling rapid decision making..but they are dangerous too, limiting one’s focus to familiar approaches that worked in the past, but may not be appropriate for changing circumstances.

For Greathouse, the changing circumstance is more women in business. His personal schema, and that of many of his VC / angel compatriots, is limited to experiencing women as wives and mothers and daughters at home, and inconsequential eye candy everywhere else. As Annie Liebowitz says, the imagery of women has to catch up with the imagery of men.”

Her project Women: New Portraits subverts the dominant paradigm, seeking as it does to capture women’s character rather than their physical beauty.

“You can’t look at all those images without seeing the true human diversity of women, not characterized by whatever feminine idea or roles of who we’re supposed to be.” ~Gloria Steinem

Personal schema can be far more powerful than rationality. Just ask Rudy Giuliani. Donald Trump’s business has gone bankrupt four times, has more than 3,500 lawsuits against him by small business owners, used his charity as a slush fund and who now has been revealed to have lost more than $915 million — in a year in which the stock market gained 37 percent! — and Giuliani says

“Don’t you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman?”

By contrast, when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act Bill, he revealed a personal schema that could serve Silicon Valley well (though you shouldn’t need to have daughters to share the schema):

I want my daughters to grow up in a nation that values their contributions, where there are no limits to their dreams and they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers never could have imagined.

And Now a Message From John Travolta
If you were born before 1980 you know about the Boy in the Plastic Bubble (played in a made for TV movie by John Travolta), who suffered from a severe autoimmune disorder that required he live in a protective bubble. When he becomes a teenager he balks at this state of affairs, mostly because his lovely neighbor Glynnis O’Connor has also become a teenager, and he understandably wants to kiss her without a wall of plastic between them.

He must decide between following his heart or remaining in his protective bubble forever. His doctors say well, you’ve built up *some* immunities and it *may* be ok to venture forth but…

That’s all Bubble Boy needed to hear, he steps out of his anti-contamination chamber and into the waiting arms of a life with more risks than if he stayed safely in the bubble…but also infinitely more reward, including fresh air, and of course the lovely Glynnis.

Silicon Valley venture capitalists and angels investing in entrepreneurs and their start-up companies have a similar dilemma: remain in their tried-and-true male privilege bubble investing in primarily male-led companies….or step out of the bubble into a world that includes the virtually unlimited rewards of investing in women.

The nations’s most accomplished musical organizations shifted nearly 50% when they discovered and rooted out gender bias. What might the entrepreneurial landscape look like when the boys of Silicon Valley step out of their bubble?

In the Op-Ed he no doubt wishes he never wrote, Greathouse reasoned that “If you assume investors and tech hiring managers are rational and their ultimate goal is to maximize their success, it is fair to also assume they will seek the most promising investments and employees, irrespective of race or gender.”

To this I say, it is also fair to assume that they will be victim to the irrationalities of their snap judgements, and that they cannot expect that they will find the best investments and employees until they can recognize and correct for these biases, for personal schema that do not include images of women as successful entrepreneurs and leaders.

Without such a ‘conscious correction’ — which is what the symphony orchestras did — it is fair to assume the most promising investments and employees may continue to be unrecognized and dismissed, hidden behind names like Amy, Kimberly and Jane.

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