Women’s work: How gender facilitates investment deals in risky markets

Photo provided by Yu & Hoang

When you think of women in the male-dominated finance and investment industry, what comes to mind? In the U.S., media and scholarship has popularized two possibilities: as either subordinate workers trying to fight gender pay gaps, sexually hostile work environments, and the lack of female leadership, or as service workers that provide men with entertainment and “arm candy.” But this is an incomplete story about the role of women—and the importance of gender—in the male-dominated investment industry. Gender plays an active role in the facilitation of how money moves internationally—not simply as a passive accessory to men or as an identity that shapes women’s experience of inequality.

To understand the role of gender in the investment world, Hoang studied foreign investors trying to secure deals in the risky emerging market of Vietnam. Global capital that ultimately settles in Vietnam faces a local market characterized by blurred lines between government and private industry. As a result, foreign investors in Vietnam must rely on local government bureaucrats who play a large discretionary role in granting business deals. To facilitate favorable deals from local bureaucrats, investors must ultimately finesse relationships with government officials.

Women and Whiskey

How do investors create and maintain these trusting relationships with local officials who can make or break their business deals? As one respondent put it, “a lot of beautiful women and whiskey.” In interviews with 300 respondents—including representatives of investment companies, local entrepreneurs, and attorneys and bankers—the 60 people Yu & Hoang interviewed that discussed this process were exceptionally up front about the role of gendered entertainment in facilitating investor-bureaucrat relationships. Male investors develop and sustain these relationships with one another in entertainment spaces filled with women, ranging from holding meetings in bars filled with young women to sex parties in private homes. But while respondents describe this reliance on these spaces as par for the course in Vietnam, not everyone enjoyed or agreed with this way of investing. We interviewed people who differed on how they reacted to this reliance on women’s bodies: those who went along with it, those who tried to reform it, and those that opted out.

Photo provided by Yu & Hoang

Those who maintain this system of using women and whiskey see value in how gendered relations facilitate business deals. They see this status quo as involving the appropriate role for men and women in the industry, and the use of women’s bodies as a powerful tool in relationship-based deal-making.

In contrast, there are those that try to reform this system. They try to change the reliance of trust building in gendered spaces without fundamentally leaving the industry. For example, these people either find markets with women-owned businesses or push their companies to find relationship-building activities that are less reliant on the presence of women’s bodies, such as golfing.

There are also those who simply leave the system. They defect, exit the industry entirely and seek alternate investment strategies. Those who leave seek financing models that have no government oversight and therefore do not require relationships with government officials who broker deals in these gendered settings, which ironically often means utilizing offshore investment strategies. For example, several people we interviewed discussed entering the technology sector instead of the historically gendered entertainment-dependent real estate sector. They see themselves as part of a new, younger generation of entrepreneurs and investors pushing the way of doing business in a new direction.

We expect that the whiskey and women deal-making system is not confined to the case of Vietnam. As we read stories of American financier Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual crimes and reexamine scenes in films (such Wolf of Wall Street) depicting the role of women and parties in the investment industry, the women-based brokerage of business deals is likely to occur in established markets as well, it may even be a key characteristic of capitalism across the globe.

Lilly Yu is a PhD Student in Sociology & Social Policy at Harvard University she is also the Wiener PhD Scholar in Poverty and Justice.
Kimberly Kay Hoang is an Associate Professor of Sociology and the College at the University of Chicago. She is also the Director of Global Studies at UChicago and the author of Dealing in Desire. 

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