I wanted the truth when I recently went asking female advisers about how they were treated in the wealth management business, and how they can assist other women in becoming financial advisers. I wondered, was it still the unspoken Mad Men style of the old boy’s network, or was that truly a thing of the past?
I promised anonymity so I could get a story that might either entice or repel women from becoming financial advisers, without showing favoritism or throwing a firm under the bus.
As it turns out, I was quite impressed by both the candor and passion that each of these women had for the wealth management business, and the variety of firms that are supportive in making a difference. The theme that emerged was this: all of these ambitious financial advisers just happened to be women and wanted to be recognized more for their success as business people rather than breaking through glass ceilings.
Most of the women agreed that overt sexual innuendo or harassment was a thing of the past, or at least that it wasn’t an issue made in front of them. The exception came for one woman, who told me a funny story when she was at a conference and was asked by a man if she could clear his plate. Once she told him she was the keynote speaker, he was both embarrassed and apologetic.
In another example, a young female adviser, who uses as many designations as possible so she's not confused for an assistant, says that she takes affectionate expressions, such as "sweetie" or "honey," with a grain of salt, especially from well-meaning clients. She says it’s more an endearment than disrespect.
Many women say they understand that most prefer the salary model, and several who were interviewed pointed out stronger apprenticeship efforts, where assistants make their way up to adviser positions that include base salaries.
The young adviser I spoke to started on her team as a registered assistant with additional responsibilities. She obtained her CFP designation and is now working less for a salary and more for commissions. I asked her why she didn’t go to full commission in her partnership when her team moved, and she explained she needed the security of being the breadwinner in her marriage. She couldn’t afford the risk of commissions.
A more experience adviser points out that the commission-based approach is, “how you make the most money,” and that women need to, “wake up because you’re investing in yourself.
But being an adviser isn't just about numbers. I have found that many of the women I spoke with are particularly skilled at developing deep authentic relationships, and not just with clients, but with more seasoned financial professionals.
Those who found partnerships that included mentors say the experience was a pivotal moment in their careers. The women who do the mentoring highly recommend it for success in the business. One woman even told me how she’d grown into a mentoring relationship on her team with one of the male partners who “saw my potential and encouraged me. He made me feel safe and confident.”
She described the culture of her group to be inclusive in its approach to business, said she was taken to client meetings often as a way to cultivate her skill set. In turn, she learned that this was also the best way to help her clients too, saying “empathy for a client’s situation really helps with my holistic approach to business.”
How to find a mentor is another story. In some firms, mentoring is encouraged among women advisers. There are special women’s forums and conferences where there is opportunity to share ideas and support other females. Most are more than willing to help younger women come up the ranks and enjoy success in the business. Some firms are providing coaching programs to assist with development as well.
And men have played a key role. A few of these women had male mentors who were major contributors and supporters to their success. Given the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says only 38% of financial advisers are women, men are likely to take a mentoring role, particularly to add value to their own practices beyond their support staff.
But it's important also speak to directly to women in a way they uniquely understand. The highly successful women I spoke to were using this to their advantage.
An independent advisor with a high-end practice told me that she’s authentic with her clients and they know her family. She’s not one to cancel meetings, but if she has a family issue, she simply tells her client, who expresses appreciation and understanding. In fact, it helps build a stronger relationship.
Women do process information differently than men, a top Edward Jones’ advisor told me, so we lose women because firms aren’t having a frank discussion about how success in the financial advisory business can affect your family. It’s not an easy business and takes a lot of hard work and commitment, she said, however, the payoffs are great both financially and the impact you can make in client’s lives.
Another woman at Raymond James recommended that all women read the book The Confidence Code by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipmen because women really do process information differently than men. The book explores the fact that “men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and over-prepared, too many women hold back.” Resilience and confidence can be learned and built; women particularly need to speak up in order to be heard.
Encouraging women to gain confidence and embrace what these women describe as a wonderful career needs to start early. One advisor says, “Girls don’t grow up believing they can be financial advisers. We need to let them know that it’s not about just sales and math—you help families.”
What other career can provide both the financial capability and flexibility to work around your family’s schedule? With 23% of CFPs now obtained by women, clearly remains a strong growth area for wirehouses, regionals and independent firms.
With a CFP and relationship skills, these women can be poised for success if they only get the right encouragement from the wealth management industry. It’s about creating career paths that make sense to women, including professionalizing the role of the sales assistant beyond that of a secretarial position.
One adviser told me the story about how she entered the business fresh off her divorce with four kids saying, “I had no choice but to succeed.” Nearly two decades later, she still has the goal of making quality contacts every day. She lives by these words: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” This same person has a background in chemistry and physics. As impressive as that sounds, she still says, it’s important to stay humble. It’s no wonder she is a top adviser at her firm.
Still all agree that the financial firms have a long way to go to get a percentage of women that reflects the real world. One female adviser says sadly, “The big joke is conferences are still a place where the women’s line to the bathroom is shorter than the men’s.”
If the women I spoke to have anything to do with it, they will be waiting on longer lines in the future.