The VC gender gap: are VCs sexist?

October 6, 2009

Jeff Bussgang

– Jeff Bussgang is a General Partner at Flybridge Capital Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm in Boston. This post originally appeared on Bussgang’s blog The views expressed are his own. –

I find the preponderance of males in VC an annoying and stubborn phenomenon. When I first entered the start-up game as an entrepreneur in the mid 1990s, I didn’t think much of the “VC gender gap” as there were plenty of women executives around. In fact, between one third and one half of the executive teams at my two start-ups (Open Market and Upromise) were women.

As the father of a capable, ambitious daughter, perhaps I’m over-sensitive to the issue, but since becoming a VC seven years ago, I find it amazing that only 5-10 percent of the VC industry is made up of women. Only 25 percent of all VC partnerships have a single women partner and only 7-8 percent has more than one women partner. Anecdotally, even fewer women are “management company GPs” as opposed to “employee GPs” – in other words, true owners of VC funds as opposed to deal partners. What other major industry remains 90-95 percent male-dominated? What’s the deal?

An outstanding Kauffman Institute study, “Gateways of Venture Growth,” analyzes this issue and comes up with some thoughtful but unsurprising conclusions. They point out that the industry remains very clubby, and the lack of female role models creates a self-perpetuating cycle. Professor Myra Hart of Harvard Business School writes, “Women trying to launch or further careers as VCs have fewer first-degree connections with those (men) in positions to hire or promote them.”

Another issue that holds women VCs back is the fact that the academic backgrounds of VCs tend to be in technical areas, such as computer science, engineering and biotechnology where, again, females are in the minority.

In talking to my women VC friends, they reinforced these two major issues, but held out some cause for optimism going forward. Irena Goldenberg of Highland Capital in Europe (and formerly an associate with us at Flybridge Capital before she went to HBS and then Geneva), believes there are more female VCs in life sciences as the medical field has a higher ratio of women to men then, say, engineering. Our senior associate, Robin Lockwood, told me she thinks VC profiles simply lags entrepreneur’s profiles. As more women entrepreneurs emerge, more women will become VCs.

Here’s a thought-provoking observation that an anonymous woman pointed out to me (and please do not accuse me of channeling Larry Summers on this – I’m just passing along what I heard): she believes the VC industry is male-dominated because men are more wired to take risks than women. Gambling, she points out, is more popular amongst men than women. Thus, risk-taking with capital is more likely to be comfortable for men than women.

Some women have been able to break out as strong investors and industry leaders. In my informal survey, a few experienced women VCs stood out as strong role models: Venetia Kontogouris at Trident Capital, Annie Lamont at Oak, Patricia Nakache at Trinity and Nancy Schoendorf from Mohr Davidow.

I guess when you have a clubby, tightly-woven, self-perpetuating network it’s hard for women to break in. It’s a stubborn phenomenon, but I hope we can figure out how to correct it. Otherwise, our industry is tragically losing out on 50 percent of the world’s best talent!

One comment

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The issue of female entry and success in a male dominated industry is not new. I agree that piercing a male social network and lack of female role models are road blocks but I disagree that men are “wired” for risk taking. This sounds like “risk taking” is genetic. I think a factor to recognize is that men and women learn who they are and how to act through role modeling and the expectations of others at an early age. This identity then becomes reinforced as their lives proceed.

It seems the barriers that exist for women leaders in VC firms may be parallel to that in law firms. The demands placed on rising through the ranks for women in these types of firms conflicts with their family role. The expectation of long hours and to be available 24/7 can serve as barrier to women because of the incongruity with their family life.

I applaud Jeff Bussgang for tapping into all available talent without regard to gender. I’m curious if the females in the VC industry have the same kind of exposure to high risk – high reward business opportunities as men?

Posted by Gloria Sweida-DeMania | Report as abusive