A joke circulating in women's groups goes something like this: "Why did Moses wander around the desert for 40 days and 40 nights? Because he was a guy and didn't want to ask for directions."

It's no secret men and women operate differently, view the world differently and respond to situations differently. But as women control more of the world's wealth, financial planners are making it their business to understand those differences. Even Wall Street, one of the last bastions of male chauvinism, is slowly but surely realizing that if it doesn't begin marketing to women, they are going to miss out on one of the biggest sources of investable assets out there.

Over the next decade, women will account for about 85% of the growth in U.S. private wealth, according to financial planners. Many have successful careers-in 22% of all households, women earn more than their husbands-and many are on their own, either because they never married, divorced or outlived their partners. And as the baby boomer generation grays and the men die off, women will be left controlling the assets of one of the largest, wealthiest generations the country has seen. The result is an enormous potential client base for planners that until the last decade had been largely ignored.

"In the past, many advisors would only address the male in a meeting. If I was meeting with a couple and only directed my comments to the man, I wouldn't be surprised if I lost that client after the husband died," said Bob Willis, a CPA and financial planner with H.D. Vest Investment Securities in Hope, Ark.

Willis would know. He says his wife went to a car dealership a few years ago and the salesman refused to let her take a car out for a test drive, insisting that she come back with her husband. Willis says his wife was willing to buy a car that day. Now, she won't go near the dealership.

Jim Ruff, head of sales and marketing for OppenheimerFunds, says it has been a challenge for his firm to convince advisors that women have as much or more earning power than men. "I think a mistake a lot of brokers and reps make is they never really target the female of the household or the spouse until the husband dies," Ruff said. "It's a historical thing in the business. Men have generally had more money than women. And the veteran reps have not stopped to think that there's another source of wealth there."

Some are finally catching on. And those actively pursuing the female market may have an easier time than they think. Research shows that women are more likely than their male counterparts to seek financial advice from people. Just as men don't like to ask for directions, many prefer to get their financial advice by burrowing through financial publications, running charts on the Internet or buying stocks they heard about in the locker room or on the golf course. In fact a recent survey by OppenheimerFunds shows women are three times more likely than men to seek investment advice from a professional.

Jan Lambert, a certified financial planner for 19 years with Lambert & Associates in San Ramon, Calif., a unit of American Express Financial Advisors, says even when men do seek her advice, they continue to pour through investment publications. It is common for male clients to send her articles in the mail with notes attached that say, "Did you read about this?" or "How will this affect my portfolio?"

Lambert says she rarely receives articles from women. "The women just assume I'm reading," Lambert said.

OppenheimerFunds brought attention to the potential of the untapped female market, with a 1992 study, Women and Investing. The study, which was updated this year, was an eye-opener. It not only rammed home the fact that women have money to invest, but it spelled out some of the differences in female investing behavior. According to the study, women tend to focus on the long term, are more risk averse and make fewer changes to their portfolios.

Men, on the other hand, focus more on short-term gains, will take more risks and buy and sell stocks more frequently, the study showed. The result is that women tend to earn higher returns than men-without nearly as much aggravation. "Once women commit to something, they're likely to stick with it. Men are a little more emotional," said Lisa Forsythe, vice president and financial advisor with Chase Investment Services in Houston, Texas.

Terrance Odean, a finance professor at the University of California at Davis, conducted a well-known study of 35,000 households from 1991 to 1997. He found that men trade 45% more often than women and the result, consistently, was lower returns. Odean concluded that the harder an investor tries, the worse he does, and he attributed that to one thing: overconfidence. He did find two factors that worked in an investor's favor: experience and being a woman. Investors who are either tend to have a more realistic perception of their abilities, Odean said.

Rob Denson, who heads OppenheimerFunds' corporate affairs department and worked on the firm's Women and Investing studies over the last decade, says men are much more likely to follow a locker-room stock tip than their female counterparts. For instance, nearly 30% of the male investors surveyed had invested in a technology stock in the last few years and lost half their money, Denson says. "I don't think women are risk averse. I think they're stupidity averse," Denson says.

Advisors who already have a sizable female client base agree women are not inclined to follow hot stock tips. That doesn't mean they are indifferent to returns. Rather, many do their homework and take their time before committing to their initial investments. Some are reluctant to use male advisors because they want the ability to ask the most basic questions, and they fear a man will view them as stupid. "Women will admit they don't know something, although they usually preface it with 'I'm stupid,'" said Sharon Hunt, an Orlando-based investment consultant with Linsco Private Ledger.

That's not to say women will hold onto bad investments regardless of how they are performing. Hunt says women sometimes will sell a bad investment faster than a man will. "Men are much more likely to hold onto those finds that aren't working with the hope that they will come back. They don't want to admit they made a mistake," Hunt said. "Women will say, 'I made the best decisions I could with the information I had and it's not working.'"

In a business that is traditionally transaction-based, meaning advisors receive higher commissions the more their clients trade, the woman's buy-and-hold approach may seem unappealing. But as the business moves toward fees, female accounts may become more attractive. Advisors will get the same fees from their male and female clients and yet the women's portfolios are likely to be less labor intensive.

Advisors already are beginning to see women increasingly controlling their household's finances, and it goes beyond just writing checks. Lambert said she met last month with a retired couple in their seventies, and it was the wife who always had the final word on portfolio decisions. Lambert says her own household is no different. "If I were to die tomorrow, I'm not real sure my husband would know where we bank," Lambert said. "We see more of the women who make the decisions and have that control."

That hasn't been every planner's experience. Kelli Gabriel, a financial advisor and assistant vice president at Merrill Lynch in Washington, D.C., says it's a mixed bag. Among her clients who are 55 and older, the man in the household usually makes the financial decisions. In younger households, couples tend to make the financial decisions together, unless the wife has chosen to stay at home with the children. In those cases, the woman usually makes the financial decisions since she has more time available for such tasks, Gabriel said. She notes that she has six or eight clients where the woman is the primary breadwinner and the man stays at home raising the family. In those instances, Gabriel pauses and then says the woman is still making the financial decisions.

Advisors courting the female market say there is little difference between the sales pitch they give men and the pitch they give women. Both genders like to be treated with respect and to feel their advisor has their best interest at heart. While some women prefer to work with female advisors, most do not have a preference. According to OppenheimerFunds' study, 58% of the women surveyed said they did not care about the gender of their advisor (21% said they preferred to work with a man).

The gender indifference seems odd, given that 54% of the women surveyed said financial advisors do not treat women with the same respect they show to men. If there is a difference between marketing to men and women, it is in where one finds the clients. While marketing to men is often done on the golf course or through professional organizations, advisors looking for women seek out charitable organizations, school-related functions, women's professional organizations and support groups for divorced women. Divorce attorneys are often a good source of referrals, advisors say.

OppenheimerFunds isn't the only big fund complex targeting women these days. Neuberger Berman began a marketing push for female clients about two years ago, focusing on high-powered female executives, and the firm has taken a uniquely holistic approach. The program, called the Women's Partnership, involves seminars that deal with female-friendly issues, white papers that educate potential female investors, and a Web site that includes an e-journal and an interactive forum where professional women can network. About 1,000 women already use the firm's online network, including many who are not Neuberger Berman clients, according to Andrea Trachtenberg, senior vice president of marketing.

"We're trying to create a community," Trachtenberg said. "While men tend to respond to hierarchy and status, the latest product or the biggest firm, women look more for connections, networks and mutually beneficial relationships. To sum it up, women prefer being respected to being looked up to." Trachtenberg believes women actually do prefer to work with other women.

Advisors are becoming savvier about how to find and treat female clients, but their marketing materials may still have a way to go. Lambert said she once gave a seminar on investing to an association of female attorneys in San Francisco and used a workbook written by one of the large mutual fund companies. She failed to read the whole workbook before using it, and on the first page, there were statements like, "Women don't make as much money as men," and "Women aren't likely to understand financial matters."

"I was almost run out of there on a rail," Lambert says. She says she still uses the workbook because the investment information is helpful, but she now apologizes to her female audiences about the book's introduction and asks them to skip over it.

Lambert also has found it hard to create PowerPoint presentations for her female audiences because the clip art in the software simply does not have a photo of a professional, working woman seated behind a desk. She says it includes many photos of men behind desks, and a few of women standing in front of desks, but nowhere in the program is there a woman seated behind the desk, doing her job. "These are the subtle things that go on," she said.

They're not likely to change until society as a whole changes. Lambert says her husband works in the brokerage industry and at a company dinner, one of her husband's colleagues asked Lambert what she did for a living. When she told him she was a financial planner working for a franchise of American Express, he said, "Isn't that cute the way your husband supports your little venture."

"I suggested to my husband that maybe he should do some outplacement counseling with the man," Lambert says.