I got out the other night. Like a real adult, spending time with a bunch of old friends. Friends I used to work with at Genentech. My old world — the biotech industry — was descending on San Francisco for the annual JP Morgan meeting, the Super Bowl of biotech investing (think Comic-Con for biotech nerds). I had attended my first JP Morgan meeting (it was called H&Q) way back in 1996. It was crowded then, and it’s exponentially more so now. So crowded that the conference itself has in some strange way taken a back seat to the social scene that has emerged around it, complete with endless chatter about who is having the coolest party and who got the most drunk the night before.
But, every year (usually), the occasion of this conference gives me a chance to leave my stay-at-home dad life for a few hours and return, at least in spirit, to my former life. And I do so without any of the stress of having to track down a specific reporter or meet with an executive. It actually gives me a great view into the world I used to know. And, it’s an interesting world.
My night was spent in two locations — first, a dive bar in the Haight that reminded me of my college bar, Dunbar’s (GO BIG RED!), followed by the lobby of the Four Seasons, down the block from the main conference location. Quite the contrast — and let me start with our second location, first.
WHERE ARE THE WOMEN?! I mean really, where are they? I noticed it the minute I walked into the lobby of the hotel with my friends. There were a few hundred people talking and drinking together and I think it would be more than generous to say the ratio of men in suits to women was 80/20, though more likely 90/10. It was overwhelming. I had to wonder if it’s gotten worse since I last worked in the corporate world five years ago. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Everyone did, especially one of my friends, a woman, who did her best to ignore all the stares. Bloomberg News did a story about the issue, describing how an investment group had a party and actually hired models to “balance out the shortage of women.” Let’s be clear here — that doesn’t solve the problem, it perpetuates it. Also, it’s creepy and gross. And most importantly, it doesn’t make sense. I know so many highly talented, amazing women in the biotech field, including my awesome wife, and it’s baffling to me how in 2016 I could stand anywhere — whether it be a professional party or inside a company — and see a 90/10 ratio. It’s bad optics, it’s bad business and let’s be frank…it’s stupid.
One last point for all my women professional friends out there (and let me know if you disagree): I think it’s important to stop saying “there aren’t enough women role models or mentors in senior roles” and that has hindered progress. That tired talking point shows up in the Bloomberg article. Sure, there’s no downside for women to have other women as role models, but if the biotech industry, and many others like it, or dominated by men then it’s men that have to be role models to help women advance, at least in the nearer term. I know a few very successful women in the industry and they would all point to specific men, in large part I’m sure, who have mentored and supported them throughout their career (and I would point to some amazing women who have mentored me).
Perhaps my time as a stay-at-home dad has changed my thinking on this somewhat. I always had believed naively that hard work wins. No matter your race or gender, you would advance if you had great ideas and did great work. When I go to a “mommy and me” gym class with my two-year old, it’s almost always a 90/10 ratio in the opposite direction (and 10% is generous here, I’m usually the only dad), and while it has gotten much better as the moms have come to accept me, I do feel I have to work much harder to prove that I have “game.” And I’m not comparing the two at all – these mom’s are not responsible for “promoting” me to a higher position or salary and have no measurable impact on my “career” as a dad. But, I do now know what it is like to be in the 10%. It can be pretty lonely.
End rant…for now.
The first part of the night was spent at a bar with a group of 20-25 people who are currently PR professionals or reporters…my old stomping ground, my “people.” I had a blast hanging out with a few really close friends that, except for Facebook, I really don’t get the chance to see that often. At points we laughed so hard that I was nearly in tears. The stories never get old. And the stories remind me of what I miss most about my old life. I feel like I had a really great career (that’s not technically over) and worked on some amazing projects that mean a lot to me. I loved hearing super smart people say super smart things about science and medicine – things I could barely grasp. But those memories fade with time. What these people still mean to me never fades. It’s because we worked so closely together, at a great time in our lives at a great company, and for the most part we were winging it, but we were winging it together. I wonder if this is why when you see an old championship team —say the Yankees of the late 1990s — they all look so happy. They talk so lovingly about each other. I imagine them standing in clubhouse talking about their “glory days” just like we did the other night.
I get it.
There’s always a special place for the people who were with you when you all did something amazing.