From the June 2007 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Only So Far, Still?

Bias against women--clients and advisors--still exists

I have to be honest. While I'm a strong believer that women are just as capable as men in holding top positions in the working world, and know all too well that, unlike men, women climbing the ranks of any profession have to prove themselves constantly, I'm far from what you would call a flaming feminist who beats the "women are wonderful and deserve more respect in the workforce" drum every chance I get. (After all, I cherish being a mom to two young sons--one being only two months old). So when I was asked to attend FSC Securities' first conference exclusively for women advisors in early May, dubbed "Why Women are Winning," I was, on the one hand, enthusiastic about attending an event designed to champion successful women's accomplishments--particularly one held by, of all entities, a brokerage firm--but I also was a bit wary of being thrown into a "love fest" for women.

Once there, however, I have to admit that I was taken in by the exchange of ideas, information, and support that took place among the women. But I was also taken aback when the women expressed their frustration with the lack of respect and recognition they receive within their male dominated profession. One attendee said to me that whenever she attends big industry meetings, she'll be met with comments like, "Whose secretary are you?" Yet another attendee told me she has male counterparts asking her at industry events, "Who's your OSJ?"--not even considering that it could be her. While having lunch with three of FSC's top producing women, I asked them if they felt overlooked, and I received a collective nod. What I encountered at the event was a group of 76 accomplished women who wanted to listen to each other's viewpoints, to be heard, and to network--not a bunch looking to throw a pity party.

Women Are Full of Surprises

It's great to know, however, that it was FSC's president, Joby Gruber, who stepped up and decided it was time to give the B/D's women advisors the attention they deserve. After all, 25% of FSC's advisors, he told me during the event, are women. Out of that 25%, "four out of the top five and six out of the top 10 producers [at FSC] in 2006 were women," he says. How much are they producing? "Our No. 1 [woman] producer last year did about $3.5 million in gross production," Gruber says. "The No. 1 shop did close to $7 million," in revenue, which is also led by a woman. "That's a high [production] number across all of the financial services industry--including wirehouses." The average attendee was in her late 40s to early 50s, Gruber says, (I saw plenty who were in their 30s). Some of the women started off in the business as sales assistants or secretaries, he says, "because in their day, there was no way they would be viewed as advisors, much less advisors at the level they are today." Other women are looking to be mentored, Gruber says, or to be a mentor.

While Gruber admits that FSC's event--which was produced in Atlanta in conjunction with Advantage Capital, like FSC an AIG Advisor Group B/D--is not the only women-focused event that's put on by the financial services industry, he believes it was high time that FSC started its own. Gruber says the first event was designed with three purposes in mind: to focus on woman as advisors and business owners in the industry; to "acknowledge the fact that the majority of wealth will, over time, move toward women investors;" and to give the attendees a snapshot of what it's like to work with female investors. Did you know that the average age at which a woman becomes a widow is 57? That's just one surprising statistic that was mentioned at the event.

Gruber says that just as FSC's advisors focus on listening to clients, so, too, does FSC. "We try to do the same thing that advisors do, and that's listen," he says. "We want to hear what kinds of problems the women are running into as business owners as well as advisors." What Gruber has been hearing from the women advisors is that "they want to have the same respect as business owners as their male counterparts," and in this male-dominated profession, "the women want to make sure someone is listening." One of their biggest worries as business owners, Gruber says, is continuity planning or succession planning.

Keeping All the Balls Aloft

Women advisors, Gruber points out, are often juggling more responsibilities than male advisors. "What the women here will tell you is they have responsibility for her business, her clients, her household, her children, her spouse's parents, her parents," he says. "Women aren't different in terms of their needs as advisors, but they're different in terms of the demands on their time, which, in many cases, is so much more than their male counterparts."

Case in point is Heather O'Neill, president of Michigan Financial Advisors in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, one of FSC's top producers who juggles running her practice and being a mother to three young girls. She told me during lunch that she started her advisory business from the ground up by cold calling and putting in long hours, and she's now able to work a three-day workweek.

Gruber says he has gotten some "tongue in cheek" remarks from male advisors that FSC isn't recognizing their achievements through a men-only event. But he's quick to shoot back: "You've been recognized all along."

Just as women are being overlooked in the planning profession, they're also being ignored as clients. That was Cheri Kuick's message during a session on targeting affluent women. Kuick, national director of client services and senior VP of institutional sales at Neuberger Berman, said women are "rarely prospected" as clients. But statistics prove that this untapped market should not be underestimated. Take some of these stats that Kuick highlighted: 50% of stock market investors are women; 80% to 90% of women will be solely responsible for family finances at some point in their lives; women control 89% of all bank accounts; and 40% of Americans with $10 million are women.

Even when advisors have women as clients, they also falter in how they interact with them. For instance, when dealing with affluent couples as clients, Kuick asked whether attendees also engaged the wife in the conversation. "If something happened to the husband," Kuick asked, "would she call you?" You need to, because 70% of widows fire their advisor within three years of their husband's death, she said, so it's imperative for advisors to build a relationship with the wife, too. Make yourself the primary advisor, she counseled, so that when something happens, the wife doesn't call her attorney, accountant, or someone at the bank.

Women Decide More Than You Think

When it comes to deciding to retain an advisor, it's almost always the woman who tells her husband it's time to do so, Kuick said. What's more, women choose advisors based on the chemistry they have with them, as well as the advisor's competency, not based on gender, Kuick revealed. It's important to note, too, that women represent a longer selling process, meaning it takes longer to secure them as clients, she said.

It looks as though a woman-focused conference will be an annual event for FSC, as Gruber said the feedback he received from the women advisors was very enthusiastic, and the women that I spoke with were all for another gathering. If you're a brokerage firm that's not currently holding a separate event for your women advisors, maybe it's time to do so. If you're an advisor, start engaging and interacting with the woman seated next to your male client. For those in the industry who are guilty of underestimating and under ranking your female counterparts, get with the times.


Washington Bureau Chief Melanie Waddell can be reached at mwaddell@investmentadvisor.com.

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