The Real Problem With the 'Babies Are a Focus-Killer' Theory: Bad for Business

Yes, hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones's recent remarks were crude and sexist—but they're based on an outdated definition of success.
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I'm beginning to feel quite grateful to hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, who explained at a symposium at the University of Virginia's McIntyre School of Commerce back in April that women will never rival men as traders because babies are a "focus killer." Speaking about one of his own previous associates, he added, to illustrate his point, "As soon as that baby's lips touched that girl's bosom, forget it."

My immediate reaction, which I am confident in saying many women shared, was disgust. The crudeness of his language tells so many women and likeminded men that we have not come nearly as far as we like to think we have. Yet as my sons and husband would quickly point out, I've been in plenty of conversations with women where someone makes the comment that men are led by a part of their anatomy other than their brains. Indeed, Cersei in Game of Thrones says exactly that to her brother Tyrion before she brings in a woman she is holding captive whom she believes is his prostitute.

So it cannot just be crude language and sexist assumptions that make Tudor Jones's comments so problematic. It is crude language and sexist assumptions by a man who is at the pinnacle of what remains a deeply male power structure: the financial industry. Women are barely represented at the top of hedge funds, private equity, investment banks, though those institutions are enormously powerful in U.S. and global society. Yet when asked by an audience member, "Please reflect on the makeup of the panel—rich, white middle age men who were mentored by the same—and what it takes for someone different to have a seat at the table and finally share their voices from a powerful place," Tudor Jones responded, essentially, that only women who do not choose to have babies will make it.

After the initial rush of outrage from (mostly) women across the Internet, a wave of responses emerged that I find deeply encouraging. First, it is apparently well established that female traders actually do better than men over the longer term. After the Tudor Jones comments surfaced, I discovered a terrific piece from a year ago by John Coates, senior researcher in neuroscience and finance at the University of Cambridge, former investment banker, and author of The Hour between Dog and Wolf : Risk Taking, Gut Feelings, and the Biology of Boom and Bust. His article cited a number of studies that show women out-performing men as both traders and asset managers, even though women are supposedly more risk-averse.

Drilling down on this data, Coates finds that men and women are equally willing to take risks. Men like to take them quickly, thrilling to the rapid-fire pace of the trading floor (think modern-day battlefield), whereas women prefer to take more time to analyze a security and then make the trade. Coates identifies three traits of a successful risk taker: "a good call on the market, a healthy appetite for risk and quick reactions." He explains that with the rise of "execution only" trading, in which the client does the analysis and looks to the trader only to execute the trade, computers are replacing traders. Thus we can now value risk-takers in terms of "their call on the market and their understanding of risk once they put on a trade; and there is no reason to believe men are better at this than women. Importantly, the financial world desperately needs more long-term, strategic thinking, and the data indicate that women excel at this."

Coates' conclusions are particularly interesting if we recall that Tudor Jones is not just emphasizing focus per se; he's talking about a kind of focus that allows a trader to be "hyper-rational," immune from emotional turbulence of any kind. That's why he equates "women with babies" with "men going through a divorce," whom he says will automatically reduce their trading results by 10 to 20 percent. Similarly, with respect to women, "The idea that you could think straight for 60 seconds and be able to make a rational decision is impossible, particularly when their kids are involved." Tudor Jones wants to rule out any kind of emotion that might separate a human being from a machine, that would deviate from the perfectly rational creature we know as homo economicus. But now that we actually have machines that can be more "rational" than any human being, the only value that humans bring, other than their ability to program the machines, is the things that machines can't do.

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Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. More

From 2009-2011, Slaughter served as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. After leaving the State Department, she received the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Department, for her work leading the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She also received a Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Prior to her government service, Slaughter was the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002-2009. She has written or edited six books, including A New World Order (2004) and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007). From 1994-2002, Slaughter was the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law and director of the International Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. She received a B.A. from Princeton, an M.Phil and D.Phil in international relations from Oxford, where she was a Daniel M. Sachs Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard.

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