One of the most popular sessions at the annual Schwab Impact show is the "townhall" meeting at which advisors can ask questions of the executives who run Schwab Institutional. I've been to a number of those sessions over the years, and they're always entertaining and informative. Sometimes, there are even fireworks. The Schwab folks sit in chairs in the front of the room, facing a hundred or so advisors who pepper them with questions about products or policies or pricing, and Deborah McWhinney or Edie Heilman or Myra Rothfeld field those questions personally or defer to another executive to answer the query. It's a great tradition for the advisors and for those of us in the press who are given entree but can only listen, not speak, though I imagine it can be a bit nerve-wracking for the execs.
This year, there were a number of questions asked about Schwab's position on the SEC's Merrill Lynch rule, under which broker/dealers get an exemption from regulation as an RIA despite the fact that they provide advice for a fee to investors. In response, the Financial Planning Association has sued the SEC, and TD Waterhouse, among others, has voiced its opposition to the rule, but the number one custodian of independent advisors has been noticeably quiet on the issue. To learn how Deb McWhinney reacted and for a report on the other doings at Impact, please turn to the lead news story on page 21. I would like to report in this space, however, on another interesting aspect of that meeting: the noted presence of women--such as McWhinney and Heilman and Rothfeld--with heavy responsibility at Schwab Institutional, and how not one person I spoke to felt it important enough to mention the gaggle of gals at the top of the advisor house that Chuck Schwab built.
It's refreshing, really, to see not just a token female on a financial services industry dais but a whole passel. Perhaps the independent advisor channel is more enlightened than the rest of American society and the industry in general. Maybe there's no need for this discussion.
Kate McBride's piece on the place of women in and around the advisory business--the third in a series on gender and money--paints a mixed picture of the state of women in the field, however. There are certainly plenty of women advisors and women who hold positions of power in planner associations and in the companies with which advisors partner, like Schwab. There remains, however, an atmosphere thick with testosterone in the wirehouses at least, according to Kate's sources, and maybe that's one reason why many women brokers find a more welcoming perch in the RIA or independent B/D worlds.
Women are different than men, but that difference doesn't equate to inequality of intelligence or leadership or temperament. I reject the notion that women can't hold positions of responsibility and leadership wherever their talents lead. I also reject the notion that each woman thinks and acts the same as every other woman. But it's important for advisors, we think (and that's why we ran the series), to understand the differences that do exist, and to understand how our socialization and the current winds of our society affect how each one of us thinks of and acts toward members of our own and the opposite sex--including those we have as clients and those with whom we work. Women can be bosses as well as bossees--I've had several in my career. Some were very good, most were tough, a few were obnoxious. Hmm, just like men.
The advisor community should feel good about being on the leading edge of this social revolution. Just as many Americans need to be reminded that we were all immigrants at one point, so all advisors came from somewhere else and should encourage and nourish those who might look different than the norm but share the principles and goals of the independent community. It's a big tent, and diversity is always a strength, not a weakness.