The financial services industry has apparently fallen head over heels in love with women. From the largest financial institutions to the smallest independent RIAs, everyone is suiting up to court the once-ignored and still underserved women's market. According to one industry insider, as much as 50% of the value-added content and training now being offered by financial product providers to broker-dealers and the major financial marketplaces is focused on attracting and retaining women clients.
It's hard to decide whether our industry is more like an awkward teenage boy just discovering girls, or a grown-up entrepreneur thinking he invented them. Most advisors would have to admit, if they looked carefully at their practice demographics, that the majority of their clients have always been women. First of all, there is a woman in most couples. Add to that base the number of women, larger than it is for men, for whom being or becoming single is, in itself, a reason for seeking financial advice: widows, divorcees and those who have chosen their professions over getting married and having children. Truth be told, there has always been a lot more estrogen than testosterone flowing through our conference rooms.
The profession's new love affair with the fairer sex does not, however, necessarily indicate that advisors have gone "soft" or become kinder and gentler in a post-Madoff world. In reality, the courtship is as strategic and pragmatic as an arranged marriage. Advisors want women for their dowry of wealth, created through their own increasing earnings or their double inheritances from parents and spouses.
Nevertheless, there are many advisors who claim, quite authentically, that they really, really like women. Practices devoted entirely to women clients are cropping up, some of the most notable being Wealth by Design for Women, a woman-run subsidiary of Hoyle-Cohen in San Diego, or Curtis Financial Planning in Oakland, which markets to "savvy women, their families and their businesses." As I speak to advisors around the country about the women's market, I hear certain refrains: "Women are easier to work with." "They don't feel like they have to challenge my advice." And my favorite of all, "Women ask for directions." Research certainly supports this greater receptivity to advice: As Financial Advisor magazine reported in June 2011, a Spectrem Group study found that affluent women investors were more likely to consult a professional financial advisor than men.
If, as a general rule, women like and need financial advice, it's not so clear that they like advisors. The 2009 global marketing study by Boston Consulting Group, which surveyed the attitudes of women around the world, found financial services to be the least responsive of 32 industry sectors. Judging from the comments of these women, financial advisors are too often "intimidating" and "patronizing." Another report by the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement confirmed this same antipathy toward advisors on the part of women executives. It seems as advisors, we either confuse women with jargon, an alphabet soup of credentials and our technical expertise, or we pat them on the head telling them we'll take care of everything.
So here we stand as an advisory profession: all spiffed up and finally ready to take our vows of loyalty and commitment to women. But the research is suggesting that the brides seem ready to run away faster than you can say "Julia Roberts." For every nice, easy-to-work-with female sitting happily in our office asking for directions, how many more are standing outside with cold feet and distrusting minds?
Clearly something has to change. Male advisors, who by their sheer numbers define the profession, worry that they must do the impossible-namely, be women themselves in order to attract more female clients. Or do the difficult, which is to hire more top female advisors. But there is not yet compelling evidence that the majority of women want to work with women advisors. Trustworthiness and competence are still more important to the average woman than a deep voice and an absence of facial hair, although there are segments of the female market, such as divorcees, widows and business owners, who are beginning to register a stronger-than-average preference for working with women.
Perhaps the kinds of advice offered by financial advisors needs to change, focusing less on investments and performance and more on basic financial blocking and tackling, like budgeting and cash management. Or advisors need to beef up on the areas of most interest and concern to women, such as long-term care, aging, housing options in retirement, Social Security benefit elections and the help women need getting more return on their human capital in the workplace. Expertise on small business formation and management would help, too, given the numbers of women going into business for themselves to find the professional satisfaction and work-life balance they can't find in corporate bureaucracies. If advisors really wanted to add value, they would help female business owners by acquiring some experience in obtaining start-up funds for woman-run businesses-an area that the more established capital markets have traditionally ignored.
But the changes can be even simpler than this. Our advice can stay more or less the same, and still work for women, if our way of delivering advice changes. Perhaps it's as simple as listening more, talking less, and helping women find their own answers, instead of ours.
There is a memorable Bob Newhart skit where he plays a psychiatrist meeting a female client who nervously confesses her problems with claustrophobia, bulimia and relationships. Newhart is not the classic Freudian shrink who stares into space, saying nothing. After allowing the client to spill her soul for just a minute or two, he claims he has her answer. In fact, he can deliver it in just two words.