Where are the women investors?

We simply have too few high profile female investors.

Five female colleagues at a work meeting, smiling to camera.

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So, I was pretty proud of my article on humility the other day.

Yes, that's a joke… But I did feel like I'd at least adequately explained some of how I approach investing, and given my readers some insight into a few of the investing giants on whose shoulders I've been able to stand.

Not my best article ever, but not my worst, and hopefully useful for our readers and members to learn from, and some approaches to set their investing by.

Until I received an email, yesterday.

I'll reproduce most of it, below, (with permission):

"Normally I quite enjoy reading Scott Phillips' views on investing, and well life. But this particular article really dampened my mood. So much so, that I decided to write in. The article talks a whole lot on humility and standing on the shoulders of giants. The message is one of humility, and grace in acknowledgement of support that goes unnoticed in the empowerment of the few, one in which resonates deeply from a 30 something female amateur investor trying to beat the odds of wealth generation, particularly lopsided in regards to the gender imbalance. I was quite shocked that in every leader and intellect that Scott Phillips mentioned throughout the article, not one person was a female, nor mentions spouses when discussing no self-made man. He talks about all the giants that he has learned from, and whose accolades he revels but not one whisper of any female influence that an older man (according to his son) worthy of any mention.

This is quite disheartening, and really puts the "Motley Fool" leaders' thoughts into perspective. To be clear I am not wanting an apology or any return message, I am merely wanting you to know my thoughts on this piece, and how they reinforce every message that our society's views (particularly around investing and wealth).

Specifically, my correspondent quoted this paragraph, from my article:

"I've taken the maths of Ben Graham, the sensibility of Warren Buffett, the multidisciplinary brilliance of Charlie Munger, the explanations of Peter Lynch, the business savvy of Jim Collins and the behavioural insights of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. I've read countless others who have unpacked and explained all of the above, and more. And I've internalised Aesop's 'Tortoise and the Hare', both as a general principle and as encapsulated in my single favourite investment picture: The Vanguard 30-Year Index Chart."

I replied to that email, and received another in response, to which I've also replied.

At first, I felt defensive. Then indignant.

Then, those feelings subsided a little.

I should, I decided, take the opportunity to reflect and to hopefully improve.

Because she (I don't have my interlocutor's express permission to use her name, so will keep her anonymous, just in case) was right in much of what she said, and it is an opportunity to shine a light in a place that's too dark.

We simply have too few high profile female investors.

Phrases like 'you can't be what you can't see' are both trite, and very true.

And yet, as I explained in my private reply, I couldn't have written the article any other way.

It was a personal reflection. The men mentioned were my influences as I read and learned about investing. They remain my personal touchstones.

So yes, I felt the criticism was unfair. A view I still hold.

But the issue itself is still real.

I am stoked that we have 30 year-old women (and women of all ages!) among our membership – in an industry that still skews overwhelmingly male.

I have commented regularly – in my writing, podcasting and in the media – that we have too few women investing and that traits considered (these days, perhaps in too binary a way) as 'feminine' personality traits tend to be traits that make for better investing returns.

We also have too few women investing role models at this point in time. Why? Well, because they haven't historically had the opportunity to compound wealth in a public way. Ben Graham wrote his book in the 1930s. Buffett started investing in the 40s. Peter Lynch in the 70s. I don't have the stats, but I doubt women made up more than 1-2% of senior investment positions at any time in those decades.

Worse, perhaps, there are very few high profile women with track records of long term outperformance still, today. Not none, I'm sure. But I couldn't recall the name of a single female investor who met that test.

I desperately hope that changes, and soon. I hope there is a groundswell of professional female investors who are presently in the process of building outstanding track records from fundamentally sound investment approaches, and who come to prominence in the coming years, and become household names that girls and women can aim to emulate.

Indeed, the only high profile female investor I could name was US fund manager Cathie Wood, who runs the tech-focussed Ark Investments – but as her investing style is dramatically different to mine, I don't consider her an influence.

Perhaps my questioner was right: that might underscore some bias, conscious or otherwise, on my behalf. I've thought about that. I've certainly never consciously ignored the option of women as investing role models. And perhaps my lack of awareness is some subconscious bias at play. It's certainly reminded me to cast a wide net and to actively look for those opportunities, so in that sense, I've been helped by the critique.

(I have also heard from women who've noted that they don't appreciate me calling out 'female investors' as a group, making the point that investing returns don't depend on gender. So… it's hard.)

Where does that leave us?

Well, I appreciated the honest and direct feedback. And I understand the dismay of women who are decrying the lack of female role models, and the frustration of investing still being a male dominated endeavour.

I'm also mindful of something I've written about before – the falling number of girls studying economics at high school. No, it's not a prerequisite for investing, but it's clear that, for whatever reason, girls aren't feeling like economics is for them, and we shouldn't be surprised that they're not entering the ranks of professional investors in equal proportions, either. I don't know the answer, but I do know that there should be no obstacle to equal representation for girls and women in economics, or investing.

Now, I do want to make sure that, in my defence, I'm not ignoring the women who are significant and important in public life, and particularly in economics.

Michele Bullock is the RBA Governor. Former RBA staffer Luci Ellis is Westpac's Chief Economist. Danielle Wood was a wonderful choice to head up the Productivity Commission, and has been frank and fearless in her comments. Angela Jackson is lead economist at Impact Economics. They (and many others) are women well worth following, for men and women alike.

(And, a shout out to the amazing women I work with: investors, techies, marketers, managers and more. I stand on their shoulders, as well.)

I still don't have female investing role models, unfortunately, because they were hard to find when I was learning my craft.

But if there's some good to come from that, I'm glad it prompted the email that I received, because it was a good wake-up call and gave me an opportunity to highlight that absence and lament the reality.

In conclusion, I want to repeat the final sentence of the email I received:

"I am merely wanting you to know my thoughts on this piece, and how they reinforce every message that our society's views (particularly around investing and wealth)."

So let me be exceedingly clear: we need more women investors. For their own sake, and to improve the overall investing conversation. We need more successful women investors so that women and girls can see people like themselves, and aspire to be the same.

I am not sure, even today, that investors who are starting off would have many high profile female role models in the field. But I am glad that there are successful women in business and economics, and I hope their numbers continue to swell.

After all, if we believe in merit, there's no reason to believe women shouldn't occupy 50% of these roles, and ideally sooner rather than later.

Fool on!

Motley Fool contributor Scott Phillips has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia's parent company Motley Fool Holdings Inc. has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.

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